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Stepping Up the Attack on Green Activists

A coordinated campaign by conservative lawmakers and the FBI aims to label environmental protests the newest form of terrorism.
 
 
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A remorseless rapist in Hamilton County, Ohio is sentenced to 15 years in prison for beating and raping a 57-year-old woman. An environmental activist in California is sentenced to 22 years and 8 months for burning three SUVS at a car dealership after taking precautions to harm no lives.

The disparity helps illustrates what animal rights and environmental groups say is an expanding Orwellian attack on American environmentalism being waged under the pretext of eco-terrorism.

In recent months, conservative lawmakers, right-wing advocacy groups and law enforcement officials have ramped up efforts to dismantle eco-terrorist groups and their supports. But critics say vague wording in the USA Patriot Act, new eco-terrorist bills and aggressive law enforcement tactics are ways of quashing civil dissent and tainting law-abiding organizations.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is at the forefront of this movement. On June 21, FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism John Lewis said eco-terrorists are one of the top domestic terrorist threats in the U.S., having chalked up some 1,200 acts of eco-terrorism since 1990 totaling $110 million in property damage. Eco-terrorist groups have caused no deaths.

As the FBI works to shut down elusive and decentralized eco-terrorist networks, civil rights groups say agents are going so far as illegally spying on activists. In June, a federal disclosure lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union forced the FBI to admit having collected 2,400 pages of files on Greenpeace, the most vocal critic of the Bush administration's environmental record, in addition to other groups.

In the courts, prosecutors work to convict activists charged with property crimes under vague and harshly punitive domestic terrorism laws. One activist, Tre Arrow, is facing life in prison for allegedly burning three logging and cement trucks in an Oregon forest. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer, in an interview in June, said Arrow's alleged actions are considered domestic terrorism because "it is a systematic attempt to use the threat of violence to instill fear for political or social purposes."

"Animal liberation movements are being demonized not just as whacko or extremist, but also as terrorist," says Steven Best, an animal rights activist and philosophy professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. "A collective insanity is sweeping the nation [and is] no less absurd, outrageous, frightening and irrational than the Red Scare of the 1950s. The USA Patriot Act expands government's law enforcement powers nationwide as it minimizes meaningful review and oversight by an independent judicial body."

Even though existing laws covering crimes such as arson, theft and trespassing are used to charge eco-terrorists, conservative lawmakers in several states are proposing laws that define eco-terrorism as a distinct offense -- something federal law does not do -- and deepen penalties for environmentally motivated crimes.

These states are each taking different approaches. Since 2001, 14 states have introduced laws directly addressing eco-terrorism, according to an association that tracks state legislation. California was the first state to pass such a law in 2003, and a New York law outlaws, for example, clandestine taping of animal facilities, a key tool for animal rights groups. One Ohio lawmaker wants to prosecute eco-terrorists under racketeering laws to let the state seize assets of convicted activists and sue those who are acquitted.

"I believe legislative efforts that brand activists as 'terrorists' are largely aimed at intimidating compassionate Americans from speaking out against institutionalized animal cruelty, such as the abuse and exploitation of animal by the multi-billion dollar meat, dairy and egg industries," said Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy For Animals, an Ohio-based animal advocacy organization.

Larry Frankel, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, described a current bill in his state that ramps up penalties for criminal acts committed with a purpose involving animals or natural resources. Frankel says the measure restricts freedom of speech by boosting penalties for people who hold particular views.

At a June hearing, he told a Senate committee that under such a law "people who protest outside of an animal research facility and block the entrance to that facility may be considered eco-terrorists. On the other hand, people who protest outside of a weapons-manufacturing plant and block the entrance to that facility will not be subject to enhanced penalties even though they are engaged in essentially similar activities."

Washington State Sen. Val Stevens, a Republican, has sponsored eco-terrorism bills in the past and plans to do so again. She believes existing laws aren't enough to meet a rising threat in her state. She also said that targeting certain activities based on motive is reasonable. "Right now we use racketeering laws to prosecute people who harass abortion clinics," she said. "Why can't we do the same for eco-terrorists?"

Michael Markarian, a vice president at the Humane Society of the United States, says two conservative groups are behind the national push for eco-terrorism legislation.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, an association of conservative lawmakers, has developed model eco-terror legislation and argues that more laws are needed because the federal law used to convict eco-terrorists is too narrow. Likewise, the FBI has also asked Congress to revise federal statues to address criminal activity related to eco-terrorism, according to March congressional testimony by John Lewis, the agency's deputy assistant director.

The Center for Consumer Freedom, a corporate-sponsored right-wing group, is working to link mainstream environmental groups with underground extremists.

David Martosko, a CCF official, told the House Ways and Means Committee in March that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the United States Human Society (USHS), and the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) have, to varying degrees, supported known eco-terrorists.

"I urge this committee to fully investigate the connections between individuals who commit crimes in the name of the ALF [Animal Liberation Front], ELF [Earth Liberation Front], or similar phantom groups, and the above-ground individuals and organizations that give them aid and comfort," Martosko testified. "I would also urge members of this Committee to prevail upon their colleagues to re-examine the tax-exempt status of groups that have helped to fund, directly or indirectly, these domestic terrorists."

The committee, chaired by California Republican Rep. Bill Thomas, was already investigating RAN for possible violations of its tax exempt status last year, a move RAN officials say is an effort by conservative politicians to stifle radical critics. Labeling legitimate acts of protest as "eco-terror" is made possible through fuzzy definitions in the USA Patriot Act, said UTEP professor Best.

"The Patriot Act creates the new legal category of 'domestic terrorist' and defines it in a chillingly broad manner," he wrote in an email. "According to the law, the crime of domestic terrorism is committed when a person engages in activity 'that involves acts dangerous to human life that violate the laws of the U.S. and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or to influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion.' Clearly 'intimidation' and 'coercion' could mean anything, and the government does not adequately distinguish between violent and nonviolent methods of persuasion."

Best, who has also been a target of CCF's allegations, says the act's vague definitions are a direct challenge to liberation groups like the ALF and ELF, which represent a top domestic terrorist threat for law enforcement. "Indeed, nearly any protest group can fit the definition of terrorists, for what is it to 'intimidate' or 'coerce' a 'civilian population' or 'to influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion'? Protests often are intimidating, and their entire point is to 'influence' policy."

Kelly Hearn is a former UPI staff writer who lives in Washington DC and Latin America. His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, American Prospect, and other publications.