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Watch What You Post

Tom Warner did Castro when Castro wasn't cool.

The 77-year-old Seattle activist and World War II vet says he was radicalized "to the ways of imperialism" while sailing to Africa and the Middle East as a merchant marine after the war. By the '50s, with the McCarthy era raging, Warner was a Communist. He was a supporter of Fidel when the young revolutionary's greatest fame was as a minor league baseball pitcher, and he's been an advocate for the Cuban revolution ever since.

But after a half-century toiling on the fringes of the American political landscape, the elderly Warner is now in trouble with the Bush Administration for a most modern reason.

He posted something on the Internet.

Specifically, Warner received a letter, dated October 16, from David Harmon, the Chief of the Enforcement Division of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the Treasury Department Agency charged with enforcing the Bush Administration's aggressive new policies as part of the nation's long-running embargo against Cuba. The letter -- a "Requirement to Furnish Information" that is the precursor to a Pre-Penalty Notice -- reads, in part:

"OFAC has received information that the U.S.-Cuba Sister Cities Association (USCSCA) organized a trip (described by USCSCA as a "conference") to Cuba from February 17-24, 2002. Based upon the enclosed Internet article, it appears you were involved with the promotion and/or possible organization of this conference. OFAC did not issue a specific license to you to organize, arrange, promote, or otherwise facilitate the attendance of persons at the conference in Cuba...

Harmon's letter goes on to require Warner to provide the office with:

"1) Full explanation of each area of involvement that you may have had with the organization, facilitation, and promotion of this conference;

2) Contact information for all organizations that were involved in the organization of this conference, as well as a description of the type of involvement by such entities;

3) If you traveled to Cuba for any purpose related to this conference, you must indicate your dates of travel to Cuba and list your activities and financial expenditures within Cuba;

4) All records (memorandums, emails, expenditure reports, receipts, etc.) that are relevant to this conference;

5) Any additional information that may demonstrate how you were involved with this conference..."

The enclosed "Internet article," from Warner's SeattleCuba.org, is equally unambiguous. It is nothing more than a calendar listing for the annual USCSCA conference, held in Havana last February.

Warner was required to reply fully within 20 business days or face up to a $20,000 fine.

The various, continually amended laws governing the United States' 40-year embargo against Cuba -- fueled for three decades by the Cold War, and for the last 12 years by Florida's 27 Electoral College votes -- have been updated in recent years, most recently with the cynically titled Cuban Democracy Act. These laws ban travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba; the only people specifically banned by their country from traveling to to Cuba. But there are a host of exceptions: for conferences, for education purposes, humanitarian aid, sporting events, and more. Citizens can apply for licenses to travel to Cuba under the various exemptions. With and without the licenses, tens of thousands of Americans are thought to make the trip each year, mostly through Canada and Mexico. (While Americans remain frozen out by domestic politics, Canadian businesses are flourishing in Cuba, and the Caribbean island has become a favorite winter tourist destination of Canadians.)

The USCSCA conference was licensed, as was the attendance of most of its attendees. At least three are known to have gotten letters anyway, demanding information on their travels; they include Lisa Valanti, the Pittsburgh head of USCSCA, and Dwight Pelz, a Democratic King County (Seattle) County Councilman who attended. Both also faced fines for not replying.

Cuba activists say such travel letters are infrequent but routine, even for persons holding valid licenses, and that when responded to there is almost never any follow-up. But Warner's case is different.

He stands suspected -- or accused, it's not clear which -- of not simply traveling illegally, but of organizing the travel, a more serious charge with bigger possible civil and/or criminal penalties. Should he be fined and contest it, the hearing process for appealing his penalty does not even exist.

But Warner didn't go to Cuba, let alone the conference; he never left Seattle. Nor is he actively involved with USCSCA; his primary group, Seattle- Cuba Friendshipment, focuses on public education and material aid through the Church Council of Greater Seattle. (Alice Woldt, head of CCGS, also attended the conference and also received a letter.)

All Warner did was repost information on his web site from a political event he supported -- something that millions of American businesses, organizations, and individuals do regularly.

For Warner, who survived the anti-Communist purges of a half-century ago, the request to name names is particularly chilling. In the reply to Harmon, Warner's lawyer, Lynne Wilson, laid out the obvious -- that Warner had no part in the conference other than to reprint an announcement of it on his web site -- but took the Fifth rather than pass on information as to who else Warner knows that is involved in the sister city movement with Cuba.

Both Warner and Wilson suspect that OFAC's attention was drawn by an attempt by Pelz to win passage last month of a sister city relationship between King County and Cuba. That attempt, opposed by local veterans' groups but otherwise little-noticed, failed by one vote. The OFAC web site promotes a 1- 800 tip line; they suspect an opponent of the local measure "turned in" Pelz, and a web search of "Seattle" and the conference turned up Warner as the "organizer" and Woldt's CCGS as his local group's fiscal sponsor. Several other local activists who actually attended the conference received no such letters.

Warner's case is, at once, hopelessly arcane and chillingly simple. The politics of Cuba, and the laws and regulations surrounding travel to it, are byzantine and poorly known by anyone who doesn't care about Cuba itself. But groups like the ACLU, which tend to steer clear of Cuba and other "foreign policy" issues, have weighed in on Warner's behalf because of the free speech precedent it sets. The terrain is the slippery slope between doing something illegal -- or "organizing" it -- and talking about it -- "promoting" it -- compounded, in Warner's case, by the fact that the USCSCA conference was completely legal. But if attacks on Internet speech are to become the norm, they would begin with the most politically marginal and unpopular arenas, or with the most legally specialized of cases. The legal rationale against Warner is no more absurd than, say, using RICO laws to prosecute anti- globalization activists -- both persons committing civil disobedience and anyone forwarding notice of an event where CD takes place.

The alternative explanation for Warner's sudden fame is that someone in an underfunded Beltway office with more power than sense cannot tell the difference between forwarding an announcement and an organizational web site; cannot tell the difference between an annual conference attended each year by elected officials of two countries and an excuse for illegal travel; and think a 77-year-old activist organized it all from 3,500 miles away. It's certainly possible; it wouldn't be the first time a government bureaucrat turned out to be clueless. But an attack on free speech rights featuring that level of stupidity and power in tandem is just as chilling.

Either way, the post-9/11 words of White Hosue spokesman Ari Fleischer take on new resonance: Watch what you say.

Or post.

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