Peter Huck reports on claims that anti-terrorist legislation brought in by the US government since 9/11 is being used as a catch-all to harass and prosecute environmental protesters
Wednesday March 2, 2005
Josh Connole will never forget the events of September 11, 2003. A lanky, bespectacled vegan with a goatee beard and an earnest manner, Connole, 25, planned to hire a video, then watch it at home with his girlfriend. Instead, he was sucked into a criminal case that illuminates how America's war on terror can be used to curb environmental protest.
"We were one minute from home when a car started following us," Connole recalls. When he slowed down so his girlfriend could photograph the car, it sped off. The car then reappeared with four other vehicles.
"We were freaked out, so I phoned 911," says Connole. Put on hold, he drove around the block, followed by the five vehicles. "We made a U-turn and all five cars were making three-point turns trying to follow us."
He already felt paranoid. Over the previous few days, several mysterious cars had trailed him brazenly whenever he left his home at a Los Angeles cooperative dedicated to self-sufficiency. On one occasion, a black Mustang tailed Connole as he drove an electric golf cart at 25mph.
Maybe the surveillance had something to do with his anti-war activities. Connole carried a "Bush is a Nazi Fascist Corporate Pig" sign at demonstrations, and voiced his displeasure in person whenever the president visited southern California. Could the cars belong to the secret service?
Finally, Connole drove to a police station, where he was advised to go home. Twenty minutes later, he was arrested in front of the co-op by FBI agents, taken into custody and interrogated. What started as a Keystone Cops farce was about to become a Kafkaesque nightmare.
The agents were from the Special Operations Group. They accused Connole of taking part in an arson attack during the early hours of August 22, 2003, when 125 Hummers - the civilian version of the military Humvee - and other sports utility vehicles were torched or defaced at car dealerships in the San Gabriel valley area of Los Angeles. The damage was estimated at $3.5m.
A videotape, released by the FBI, showed two men running through a parking lot, spray-painting "I love pollution," "elf" (an acronym for the Earth Liberation Front) and other graffiti on the gas-guzzlers. The FBI says the underground group ELF - along with its model, the British-based Animal Liberation Front (ALF) - has committed 1,100 terrorist acts, costing $110m.
The FBI said Connole was their man. His lanky frame resembled one of the videotaped suspects, and an anonymous source had reported suspicious activity at the co-op. This proved to be "there's young people with environmental bumper stickers on their cars and it doesn't look like they have jobs", says William Paparian, Connole's lawyer. It seemed a flimsy basis for round-the-clock surveillance.
Indeed, the FBI was mistaken. Last November, William Cottrell, a 24-year-old California Institute of Techonology physics student, was found guilty of the arson attacks. He faces up to five years in jail. Two alleged accomplices remain at large.
Connole, who is suing the FBI, believes the raid on the co-op was a fishing expedition. "They weren't looking for bombs or explosives [the activists used Molotov cocktails]. They didn't even search the garage. They went for everyone's computers and phone address books. A couple of days later, they started calling people from the phone books." He believes the FBI wanted to infiltrate the environmental and anti-war protest movements.
Certainly, ELF - which operates clandestinely in independent cells, posting attacks on its website while self-appointed spokesmen talk to the media - is hard to infiltrate. While mainstream environmentalists use civil disobedience, litigation, political lobbying and land purchases to further their aims, ELF, ALF and other militants destroy property. They target those whom they say "profit from environmental destruction".
Rik Scarce, author of Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement, explains: "At first, ecotage [environmental sabotage] was highly focused. Trees were spiked in areas being logged. More recently, there has been a shift towards targets of opportunity, such as car dealers selling Hummers."
Last May, an FBI official told US senators that tackling animal rights extremists and eco-terrorism had become "a domestic terrorism investigative priority". And while no one has been hurt by ALF or ELF attacks, there are fears that Washington's lamentable environmental record may drive militants to more extreme acts.
"There will be no quarter given," warned an ominous communiqué from Revolutionary Cells, an animal rights group, in 2003 after the bombing of two Californian firms with links to Huntingdon Life Sciences, a British laboratory that experiments on animals for research.
One of the consequences of treating crimes such as arson as "domestic terrorism" is that such acts become federal rather than state matters, thereby inviting the wrath of the US justice department, and raising their profile. Intriguingly, sworn testimony at Cottrell's trial revealed a White House connection. "We had a query, believe it or not, from the president on this case," an FBI agent told Cottrell.
Why George Bush should be interested in an LA firebombing is a mystery, but it suggests how "domestic terrorism" has moved up the political agenda in an administration that has stoked public fear of terrorism.
The war on terror is already proving a headache for environmentalists, taking them into murky legal territory. "It's a ludicrous extension of the word terrorist," says Steven Best, a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso, who has written about the animal rights movement. "It drains it of any meaning."
In the US, terrorism is usually depicted as politically-motivated violence towards people, but if terrorism is expanded to attacks on property, argues Best, then are corporations who destroy rainforests not also terrorists?
"The semantics of this is very important," he says. "In order to apply anti-terror laws, you have to first define a group as terrorists. Once you have accomplished that, you can override constitutional protections."
Thus, under the draconian conditions of the USA Patriot Act, enacted in the aftermath of 9/11, the FBI can use covert surveillance of "terrorists" without the necessity of getting a judicial warrant. Several laws - such as the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act, which forbids "physical disruption to the functioning of an animal enterprise" - existed before 9/11. But the Patriot Act upped the ante.
Just what this means for environmental protest could be revealed next June at the trial of the so-called Shac 7. The seven US activists from Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty are charged with vandalism, stalking, computer hacking, deluging with emails, phone calls and faxes a brokerage company that handled Huntingdon Life Sciences stock, identifying HLS staff, and suggesting activists "operate outside the confines of the legal system". Best thinks the case may become a show trial.
Meanwhile, the growing climate of harassment appears to be getting results. "It has jaded me," Connole admits. "I feel that if I continue down this road I might get framed again."