Eco-Activists Fight the 'Terrorist' Label

In an attempt to shield private property and development from saboteurs, business lobbyists are pushing new laws that would further criminalize the actions of radical ecological activists. Government officials and corporations are applying the rubric of anti-terrorism to penalize those who destroy company or government property when protesting mistreatment of animals and the ecosystem.

Last month, federal grand juries in Oregon and California indicted 11 people on various conspiracy charges for their alleged involvement in the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) or the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) -- underground groups responsible for dozens of acts of property destruction as a strategy for protecting vulnerable species.

While some federal officials and media reports liken the defendants to domestic terrorists, others, including some legal experts and free-speech groups, say the label is an intentional misnomer without legal basis.

The actions

In Oregon, a 65-count indictment charges the defendants with involvement in 17 arson and property-destruction attacks between 1996 and 2001. The incidents involve meat processing plants, lumber companies and other public and private targets.

Defendants in California are accused of conspiring to use fire and an explosive to damage property of the U.S. Forest Service Institute of Forest Genetics, a fish hatchery, cellular telephone towers and electric power stations. Though their alleged plot was reportedly foiled by a federal informant, two of the defendants face up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

Over the past quarter century, the ELF and ALF have taken responsibility for numerous crimes of arson, vandalism and property destruction against institutions the groups say harm people, animals or the environment.

The FBI says that these and related groups have committed more than 1,100 "criminal acts" since 1976, causing more than $110 million in damage.

In an October 2001 press release, the ALF claimed responsibility for one of the activities listed in the Oregon indictment: releasing 200 horses and setting four timed incendiary devices in Litchfield, Calif. The group accused the BLM of rounding up wild horses for slaughter to clear public land for cattle grazing.

Similarly, ALF spokesperson Dr. Jerry Vlasak said the motive behind the arsons of a ski resort expansion in Vail, Colo., in 1998 was to prevent the destruction of land inhabited by lynxes, which were added to the threatened species list after the attacks.

After the recent arrests, FBI Director Robert Mueller called animal rights and environmental "extremism" one of the bureau's highest domestic terrorism priorities.

But the activists say they are on a mission to defend, not terrorize. Vlasak said property destruction is used after other avenues of environmental and animal-rights activism are exhausted.

"There are people working on legislation, there are people working on public education, there are people holding protest signs, but those things alone will not achieve the end result of animal liberation," Vlasak told The NewStandard. "So people who are willing to break the law to stop animals being exploited are just one part of a liberation movement."

As a policy, the decentralized, anonymous groups do not harm humans during their activities. Rather than directly instilling a sense of fear in individual humans, the ALF and ELF engage in acts of property destruction as a means of raising the costs of doing business until they are a deterrent to conducting practices the activists oppose.

From buzzword to legislation

The groups railing against so-called "eco-terrorism" cite the public interest in their campaigns, yet private interests influence their policy initiatives.

One of the originators of the term "eco-terrorism," Ron Arnold, is the founder of the "wise-use movement," a loose network of groups opposing environmental regulation and pushing for more industrial development on public lands. Arnold, who once told the Toronto Star that he wished to "eradicate the environmental movement," currently serves as vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, a pro-business research organization. He has pushed the concept of the eco-terrorist threat in his published writings, media appearances and congressional testimony.

Another industry-backed advocacy group, the Center for Consumer Freedom, heads the movement for ecological terrorism laws. Heavily funded by restaurant, alcohol and tobacco interests, the organization has pressed the FBI to investigate radical groups, like the ELF and ALF, as well as mainstream organizations like the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). David Martosko, the center's research director, testified at a Senate hearing in May 2005, saying, "The threat from domestic terrorism motivated by environmental and animal rights ideologies is undocumented, unambiguous and growing." Among the center's other priorities is fighting against healthy-eating and anti-smoking campaigns.

Business lobbies have also drafted model legislation to addresses radical environmentalist crimes. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative public-policy organization funded by more than 300 corporations, collaborated with the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, an advocacy group for hunters, fishers and trappers, to write the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act. If passed into law, the Act which would consider arson, property destruction or trespassing to be acts of domestic terrorism -- if committed by animal-rights activists.

The groups also wish to criminalize acts providing "financial support or other resources," including lodging, training or transportation to aid eco-terrorist activities. An online registry of convicted offenders that would include personal information and photographs is another recommendation in the draft bill.

So far, the lobbying effort against eco-terrorism on the federal level has failed. In 2003, Representative Chris Chocola (R-Ohio) introduced the Stop Terrorism of Property Act, which would have codified "eco-terrorism" as a federal crime, but with 54 co-sponsors, the bill died in committee. On the state level, however, lawmakers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, South Carolina, Arizona, Washington and Hawaii are pushing various versions of the ecological terrorism legislation.

Defining a terrorist threat

Though Justice Department officials publicly refer to the ALF and ELF defendants as "terrorists," none is formally charged under terrorist criminal statutes, nor are the terms "eco-terrorism" or "domestic terrorism" in either indictment. Legally, "domestic terrorist" refers to a specific category established in the federal criminal code, USC 2331, as enhanced by the Patriot Act.

The federal government's elastic public use of the term "eco-terrorism" has drawn some criticism from the public and officials.

According to William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University, the legal framework for terrorist-related crimes as well as public perceptions of domestic terrorism have been redefined since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He noted that prior to the passage of the Patriot Act, what might now be considered "domestic terrorism" cases could be tried under conventional criminal laws like conspiracy to harm others and conspiracy to commit murder.

But Banks commented that while ELF and ALF activists might be considered protesters and in some cases, criminals, they do not meet his threshold for domestic terrorism because they do not perpetrate violence against civilians in order to instill fear.

There is, however, some legal precedent for categorizing animal-defense groups as "terrorists" in the 1992 federal Animal Enterprise Protection Act, which defines "animal enterprise terrorism" as the "physical disruption to the functioning of an animal enterprise," including research labs, testing facilities, zoos, aquariums, and circuses.

This week, six activists with a group called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty will be tried under this Act in New Jersey, charged with using their website to incite violence against the animal research company Huntingdon Life Sciences, which reportedly kills about 75,000 animals every year for research.

The magic word

Some lawmakers, seeking to put eco-terrorism in perspective, have criticized the targeting of environmental activists as unwarranted.

At a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works last May, Sen. Barak Obama, D-Ill., cited the FBI's own assertions that crimes by the ELF and ALF had been decreasing. Obama suggested that the FBI's 2003 statistics showing more than 7,400 hate crimes motivated by race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation, and 450 environmental crimes by industries violating clean air and water laws, and improperly transporting and disposing of hazardous waste, demonstrated that there were much bigger threats.

"While I want these [ELF and ALF] crimes stopped," the senator said, "I do not want people to think that the threat from these organizations is equivalent to other crimes faced by Americans every day."

Free-speech advocates say that aside from misguided crime-fighting priorities, there are serious repercussions of the "eco-terrorism" dragnet, especially in light of the recent evidence of FBI and law enforcement surveillance of protest groups.

Larry Frankel, legislative director of the Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the language of the bill introduced in his state stigmatizes only certain political viewpoints. For example, he said, under the proposed statue, people who blockade a road to stop old growth logging could potentially be eco-terrorists, "but if an environmental law firm was preparing a brief to go to court, to file an injunction to stop [the logging], and someone came in and trashed their offices so they couldn't get the brief done, they wouldn't be guilty of eco-terrorism."

Frankel believes this is a pattern to stifle political activism. "People will not want to come out to engage in protest activity because they're afraid of being arrested as a terrorist, and that the government will use these terrorist-fighting tools to impose harsher sentences on people who are merely engaged in protest activity and not terrorist activity."

Betty Ball with the Boulder, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center agreed, saying her organization has seen membership and donations drop since the FBI called one of their civil disobedience actions at a military base an "act of terrorism."

Stu Sugarman, an attorney in Portland, Ore., who has represented numerous Earth Liberation Front defendants in the past, said the prevalence of the word "eco-terrorist" is an example of successful government propaganda. And he fears that use of the term by federal officials and the press could affect the judges and juries considering the fates of the current defendants.

He noted that another popular term for groups like the ALF and ELF, "saboteurs," suggests "somebody who's really not going to cause that much damage; certainly somebody who's not going to harm people. But a terrorist is somebody who goes out and tries to kill people."

"Terrorism is a magic word," said Sugarman. "It's like child abuse or drunk driver. It immediately conjures up the image of a really bad person who we want out of society."


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