Friday, March 28, 2008

The Garden Club is Next

Suppose an anti-abortion group becomes frustrated by its inability to shut down the sole clinic providing abortions in your town. Decades of protests, lobbying the legislature and governor, disseminating educational materials have accomplished nothing; the abortions go on.

Several of the group's more excitable members decide that the only option left is direct action. They decide to burn down the clinic.

But they will burn it down at night, when the clinic is closed and no one is inside. Adjoining buildings will also be empty.

One person builds the incendiary device, he and three others break into the building at night and set the device, and a fifth person stands guard outside with a walkie-talkie to warn the others if guards or police appear.

The operation is successful. The building burns to the ground, no one is physically harmed, and the access to safe and legal abortions in your town is eliminated for the time being.

Most importantly, the group has sent a message to elected officials: abortions will not be tolerated in this town.

The arsonists are criminals, certainly, but are they terrorists?

What if they are environmentalists opposed to genetic engineering of trees who burn down an empty research lab?

The federal government is now using draconian post-9/11 powers to intimidate, attack and imprison for "terrorism" political dissenters who commit property crimes.

Don't get me wrong; I hold no brief for people who destroy personal property, especially if it is my personal property.

However, as a native-born American citizen and taxpayer in good standing, I really prefer that the FBI concentrate on homicide cases involving the actual murder of actual human beings rather than, you know, trespassing. Or even arson.

And I really, really don't want them exaggering political dissent into "terrorism" as an excuse to use the Constitution for toilet paper.

Salon has the frightening, depressing and infuriating details.

Earlier this month, on March 6, a federal jury in Tacoma, Wash., found Waters guilty of two counts of arson for serving as a lookout at the University of Washington fire. According to two women who testified against her in return for dramatically reduced sentences, Waters hid in a shrub near the Center for Urban Horticulture with a walkie-talkie, ready to alert the others if the campus police strolled by. Waters testified she wasn't even in Seattle that night.

Although Waters was on trial for only the University of Washington arson, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Friedman charged that she was part of a conspiracy -- a member of a "prolific cell" of the Earth Liberation Front, responsible for 17 fires set in four states over five years. Ten conspirators have pleaded guilty and been sentenced; four have fled the country; three are awaiting sentencing. Waters, the only one of the accused to have pleaded innocent and therefore the only one to have stood trial, now faces 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors celebrated the guilty verdict against Waters as a signal victory in the campaign against "eco-terror," a mission that the U.S. Department of Justice has made the centerpiece of its domestic counterterrorism program. "This cell of eco-terrorists thought they had a 'right' to sit in judgment and destroy the hard work of dedicated researchers at the UW and elsewhere," U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan declared in announcing Waters' conviction. "Today's verdict shows that no one is above the law."

Civil libertarians draw a different moral from the verdict. For them it is evidence of how the Justice Department has exaggerated the threat of eco-sabotage; they see Waters' story as a disturbing example of the misuse of federal authority and the excessive reach of the American counterterrorism program in the wake of 9/11. As Lauren Regan, director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Ore., remarks: "There's a question of whether burning property is really the equivalent of flying a plane into a building and killing humans."


Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller decided "they are going to restructure the FBI as a terrorism prevention organization rather than just a crime-fighting organization," explains Ben Rosenfeld, a civil rights attorney in San Francisco. The FBI vastly expanded its domestic and international terrorism capabilities, adding whole new categories of crime to its terrorism portfolio. Acts once considered property crimes -- like the arson at the University of Washington --were now assigned not to the bureau's criminal division but to the terrorism division.


In the wake of 9/11, federal prosecutors had some new legal tools at their disposal. Historically, the crime of terrorism has required civilian deaths. In fact, the tate Department defined terrorism as "premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatants." But the USA Patriot Act created a new category of domestic terrorism, which is defined as an offense "calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government" or "to intimidate or coerce a civilian population." Under this broad definition, eco-saboteurs become terrorists if their crime seeks to change government policy or action.

Several Republican members of Congress didn't want to stop there. In a letter sent to eight mainstream environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis and six other congressmen demanded that respectable environmental organizations "publicly disavow the actions of eco-terrorist organizations." In
2006, Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which imposes severe punishments on anyone who "intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property used by an animal enterprise."


If Waters encounters the full force of the government's anti-terror zeal, it will be when she is sentenced on May 30. Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to seek a "terrorism enhancement" -- a sentencing rule that was written into the federal sentencing guidelines in 1995, after the bombings in Oklahoma City and at the World Trade Center, and would allow the judge to add up to 20 years to her prison term if her crime can be construed as a terrorist act.

Prosecutors sought the enhancement for six of the 10 Operation Backfire arsonists, who have been sentenced already, a significant departure from legal convention. (Meyerhoff, despite his cooperation, received a 13-year sentence.) "Never before has the terrorism enhancement been applied where there were no deaths," says Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center.


Nonviolent protesters have already felt the heat. Documents obtained in 2005 by the ACLU reveal that the FBI has been surveying animal rights and environmental groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Greenpeace, sending undercover agents to activist conferences and cultivating inside informants. Some of the documents suggest that the bureau was also attempting to link those groups with the ELF and ALF. The National Lawyers Guild reports that it receives calls regularly from environmental and animal-rights activists all over the country who had been contacted by the FBI after attending political events. "It has a chilling effect on free speech," says Guild director Boghosian, "and that's where the real damage to the Constitution is happening."

' ... an offense "calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government."' Ever seen a bunch of really pissed-off Garden Club members raise hell at a city council meeting? What if one of the mayor's options was calling the FBI to haul them off to Guantanamo?

Cross-posted at BlueGrassRoots.