By JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
With nothing much better to do and an unlimited budget to burn, the FBI is turning its mighty inquisitorial arsenal on environmental groups across the country. Even now the feds are scouring green outfits from Moscow, Idaho to Cancer Alley Parish, Louisiana, looking to round up bands of eco-terrorists, the Osama Bin Ladens of the American outback.
Back in Reagantime the rightwingers smeared environmentalists as watermelons: green on the outside, red on the inside. In those halcyon days, economist John Baden, major domo of a rightwing think tank called FREE and the Svengali of the Sagebrush Rebels, made a small fortune hawking watermelon ties, woven of the finest petro-polyester, to his retinue of oil execs, federal judges and range lords. Now that cap-C Communism has faded into the oblivion of high school history text books, the corporate world's pr mavens have had to concoct a new spine-tingling metaphor to evoke the threat environmentalism poses to their bottom line: eco-terrorism.
Apparently, it's just a short step from al Qaeda to PETA. That's right, the money you save from not buying fur may be going to finance terrorist raids to liberate condemned mink from their isolation cages on rodent death row in Corvallis, Oregon.
Of course, the feds haven't had much luck finding Bin Laden. And our mean-spirited Clouseaus didn't stop any of his kamikazes, even though their own agents shouted out repeated internal alarums. And when the whistleblowing agents went public, the FBI brass cracked down on them, gagged some and gave others, such as the courageous Sibel Edmunds, the boot.
Several of the feds' biggest terrorism arrests have blown up in their faces. In Portland, Oregon, the FBI dramatically seized attorney Brandon Mayfield, trumpeting to the press that the mild-mannered immigration lawyer was a long-distance mastermind behind the Madrid train bombings, a kind of Fu Manchu in Birkenstocks. The feds said the technicians in their crime lab had detected Mayfield's fingerprints on a bag found near the bomb site that supposedly was linked to the terrorists. After several harrowing weeks, he was released by a disgusted federal judge, over the FBI's virulent objections, after Spanish investigators revealed that the fatal fingerprint bore not the faintest resemblance to Mayfield's and, in fact, belonged to an Algerian. Yet another crushing blow to the FBI crime lab.
And after four years, the FBI's snark hunt for the anthrax killer has also come up empty.
So perhaps tree huggers shouldn't sweat these menacing invigilations from the big heat.
Then again perhaps they should worry.
What the FBI is truly proficient at is destroying the lives of innocent people, such as Brandon Mayfield, Judi Bari and Wen Ho Lee. That's when they don't simply kill you outright, as they did to Fred Hampton, the blameless men, women and kids in that house of flames in Waco and Randy Weaver's wife, Vicki, as she held an infant in her arms on the front porch of their cabin at Ruby Ridge.
Armed with the bulging array of new police and surveillance powers handed the agency in the wake of 9/11, the FBI is now free to prowl unfettered by even the thinnest strands of constitutional due process through the lives, email and bank accounts of activists trying stop chemical plants from flushing toxins into their water or logging companies from slaughtering 800-year old trees on lands that are purportedly part of the public estate.
In other words, the FBI is acting as a federally-funded paramilitary force for the cancer industry and Extinction, Incorporated, as the Pinkerton Agency and National Guard once did for Anaconda Copper and Standard Oil.
Apparently, no one has told Robert Mueller that the corpse of Edward Abbey has been moldering in the Arizona desert for 15 years, his place taken by touchy-feely greens funded by organic body products companies, such as Julia Butterfly, who would rather talk to trees than drive spikes into them for their own good.
Of course, this kind of glaring nuance won't deter an agency that persists in peddling the repeatedly discredited slur that Judi Bari bombed herself.
Over on FoxNews, blinking eco-terrorist alerts have replaced Tom Ridge's color-coded threat level as the latest alarmist metronome to distract viewer attention from the plight of Karl Rove, the convictions of corporate tycoons and the deepening bloodbath in Iraq.
FoxNews devoted extensive coverage to congressional testimony earlier this summer by John Lewis, the FBI's Deputy Director for Counterterrorism. Deftly sidestepping border vigilantes, anti-abortion zealots, and white supremacists, Lewis pointed to environmentalists as the great looming internal threat to the security of the nation. Lewis breathlessly claimed that the FBI had documented more than 1,200 acts of eco-terrorism over the last 15 years, inflicting $110 million in property damage-or about the same amount that timber companies steal from the national forests each year. Oddly, executives at the Weyerhaeuser Company--a repeat offender--haven't done any time in Pelican Bay lately.
Once again these hotly reported stories have mostly fizzled out, with the supposed acts of eco-terrorism turning to be insurance scams, disputes between neighbors or angry employees venting their rage with a match and a gallon of gasoline.
In December of 2004, more than a dozen homes in a Maryland subdivision near a wildlife reserve were torched. Before the embers from the smoldering houses had cooled, the FBI publicly fingered eco-terrorists for the arson. But it soon emerged that the fires in the largely middle-class black neighborhood had been committed by a drunken gang of white power pyromaniacs called The Family. Close, boys, but no cigar.
Meanwhile, the Reverend Pat Robertson broadcasts assassination proclamations on national television. Praise the lord and pay the hit man. Operation Rescue's Randal Terry publicly threatened federal judges during the national trauma over Terri Schiavo. One of David Horowitz's featured writers on Frontpage, a certain Michael Calderon, called for "Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, Michael Moore, Ward Churchill, and [Justin] Raimondos to be found shot full of holes." Another group of beer-gutted ultra-Patriots in Chicago openly pleads online for the execution of Stan Goff, Alexander Cockburn and your humble scribe.
None of these would-be terrorists is currently deemed a public menace by the FBI. Rev. Robertson's notoriously corrupt Operation Blessing is even sanctioned to receive FEMA money.
Over the past quarter of a century, only abortion providers and Muslim clerics have been on the receiving end of more death threats than environmental organizers. It comes with the territory. But these virulent acts of harassment--messages often driven home with dead spotted owls, bullet casings, and rocks through the front window--rarely rouse the interest of the FBI or even local cops. Apparently, the agency doesn't consider the violent suppression of political speech a terrorist act.
The environmental movement hasn't issued any fatwahs lately. (Although there may have been discussions at the crusty League of Conservation Voters of taking some kind of preemptive action against Ralph Nader on the eve of the last election.) Indeed, the greens haven't had many successes at all, since Clinton and Gore drained the spinal fluid out of the big greens back in the mid-90s. With a few feisty exceptions in Montana, Oregon and Louisiana, the movement is a paper tiger these days. Paper tigers are easily intimidated into turning on their own, which may be the point.
The lack of a body count from green sleeper cells hasn't stopped the FBI from amassing robust files on dozens of environmental organizers and environmental groups. Of course, this is an agency that harbored files on Sinatra, Liberace and Louis Armstrong. Satchmo, though, certainly posed a greater threat to the nation's ruling elite than has ever been evinced by the National Audubon Society. In these tremulous times, it's the environmental activist who doesn't have an FBI file who should bear the greatest scrutiny--there's your potential infiltrator. So perhaps the FBI had done the environmental movement a service. The next time you're thinking about giving a green group a contribution, ask to see their FBI file. If it's thinner than 100 pages, donate to another group.
The feds seem to have a special fetish for Greenpeace. A recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU forced the FBI to reveal that it had accumulated more than 2,400 pages of information on Greenpeace. While Greenpeace may be the Bush administration's most visible environmental critic, this isn't your grandfather's Greenpeace, which has largely abandoned the flashy direct actions of yore for glossy direct mailings and run-of-the-mill lobbying efforts--think National Wildlife Federation with tongue-piercings.
And let us never forget that while Greenpeace has never been charged with any terrorist act, it has been the victim of a lethal terrorist bombing. In 1985, two French secret agents detonated three limpet mines on the hull of the Rainbow Warrior while it was docked in Auckland Harbor. The explosions killed Fernando Pereira, a Portuguese photographer.
Even the feds can't cite a single death resulting from an alleged act of eco-terrorism. But that doesn't matter. After the horrors of New Orleans, it should be clear to all that it's the protection of property, not people, that really gets the feds going.
Destruction of property in the name of a political cause is now deemed an act of terrorism that can carry with it prison terms equivalent to first-degree murder and allows the FBI to deploy the extra-constitutional powers granted by the Patriot Act and other anti-terrorism laws.
Take the strange ordeal of Tre Arrow, who faces a life-sentence on federal charges of burning a cement truck and logging equipment in the ancient forests of Oregon. Today, Mr. Arrow, who denies the allegations against him, is being held in Canada, where he is fighting extradition. Those machines torched in the Oregon forests were valued at less than $500,000 combined. Yet Arrow, still in his twenties, is looking at 70 years hard time in federal prison. Compare that to the Nero of Tyco, Dennis Kozlowski, convicted, along with his partner in crime Mark Swartz, of stealing $600 million from his company. Kozlowski will be eligible for parole in seven years. Enron's Meyer Lansky (AKA Andrew Fastow), the numbers man responsible for engineering an accounting scheme that resulted in the largest bankruptcy in US history, got 10 years in Club Fed--and he almost certainly won't serve all of that. They never do.
As disclosed by former UPI editor Kelly Hearn in an excellent recent piece for Alternet, under several state laws, and a bill currently being shepherded through the US congress, you don't even have to destroy property to be considered an eco-terrorist. All you have to do is block access to an animal research facility. Chain yourself to the door of entry into a Dachau of the chimp world and you might find yourself staring down a 20-year prison term, with all of your personal and organizational assests seized, as if you were a Colombian drug kingpin. Here the barbaric RICO statutes are being cast out as the agency's prosecutorial driftnet.
The crackdown on greens is happening at a time when legally sanctioned avenues of dissent against polluters and pillagers of nature are being foreclosed daily, as congress and the administration curtail abilities to appeal and litigate federal rulings threatening the environment. It's even getting tougher and tougher to find out what is actually going on. With 9/11 as the inevitable rationale, the Bush administration has shuttered the Toxic Release Inventory, which disclosed the kinds and amounts of pollutants spew into the water and air by chemical plants, and squeezed the Freedom of Information Act in the name of national security (read: corporate wet dream). What was once a fundamental right of remonstrance against governmental and corporate outrages is now considered an act of sedition.
So this FBI witchhunt is already well underway and will soon be coming to a community group near you. The lives of part-time activists, mothers, nurses, students, will be turned upside down. They will be harassed, bullied and encouraged to inform on their colleagues. Organizations will be infiltrated and wrecked from the inside. False stories will be planted in the press. Environmental funders will be scared off. Foundations will be audited, hauled before hostile congressional committees and threatened with revocation of their tax status. It's a creepy new twist in an old narrative.
They got it all wrong, you say? Tough luck.
Being an FBI agent means never having to say you're sorry. Just ask Richard Jewel, the man they wrongly fingered for the Olympic Park bombings.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering in the War on Terror.