Is ecosabotage terrorism?
Seattle Times staff reporter
Is it terrorism?
FBI says yes, even though environmental militants target property, not people.
- FBI chronological summary of terrorist incidents, 1980-2004
- FBI report on intelligence sharing (PDF). The report discusses "social" protests, protesters and groups in several places, most notably on report page 34.
Who is a terrorist?
After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, it was clean-cut Timothy McVeigh, a brooding loner — infused with hatred of the government — who was convicted and put to death for that crime.
After 9/11, which claimed the lives of more than 2,900 people, it was the bearded visage of Osama bin Laden.
This year, the Bush administration has touted the arrests of terrorists of a different kind — homegrown militants who have embarked on arson attacks to protest treatment of animals and the environment.
During the past three years alone, FBI counterterrorism agents have conducted at least 190 investigations into property crimes claimed by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). None of the crimes injured or killed people.
"Terrorism is terrorism — no matter what the motive," declared FBI director Robert Mueller on Jan. 20, when he announced the indictment of 11 people in an alleged conspiracy that involved 17 attacks. Those include arsons at a ski resort in Vail, Colo., a horse slaughterhouse in Oregon, a federal wildlife research center in Olympia and the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture.
More indictments are expected in the months ahead as federal grand juries meet in Seattle, Eugene, Denver, San Francisco and other cities. Most of those indicted earlier this year could face decades in federal prison. A few may face life sentences, if tried and convicted.
Some balk at putting the terrorism label on activists who have targeted property — not people.
In the post-9/11 era, they say that the word tilts the criminal-justice system against defendants and helps the Bush administration justify a broader infiltration — and surveillance — of groups that protest government policies.
Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union indicate that the FBI has monitored the activities of some environmental, animal-rights and peace groups.
"You couple spying on political dissenters with grand jury subpoenas and a series of arrests, it's had a huge effect," said Alejandro Queral, executive director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center. "There is a serious danger of chilling dissenting points of view."
The FBI decision to run these investigations through a counterterrorism branch also has been questioned by its own Office of Inspector General, which in a 2003 report recommended that the cases should be handled by its criminal division.
In Oregon, the power of the terrorism label also generated concern from a federal judge. In a 2002 hearing in Portland, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden told a federal prosecutor not to use the word "terrorist" in the trial of Jacob Sherman, an Oregon man inspired by ELF to set fire to three logging trucks.
"Basically, he [Redden] thought it was a fairness issue, and that it could prejudice the jury," said Andrew Bates, a defense attorney for Sherman, who avoided trial through a plea agreement.
Redden's concern underscores the lack of a universal definition for terrorism. Even within the U.S. government, there still is no unanimity, according to the Government Accountability Office.
For example, the State Department, when assessing violence abroad, defines terrorism as "premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatants" — in other words, attacks designed to injure or kill people.
Other federal laws and codes use a broader definition of terrorism that can include attacks on property as well as people. The statutes define domestic terrorism as acts of violence intended to influence the conduct of government or "intimidate or coerce a civilian population."
Even those definitions are open to interpretation. For example, the vast majority of attacks on abortion clinics, including those that have killed at least six people since 1993, are not classified by the FBI as terrorism.
Among federal prosecutors in Oregon, there is no debate that the ELF and ALF arsons add up to terrorism.
They say the attacks have posed a danger to humans, including firefighters who respond to put out the blazes, and were intended to further a political agenda.
A slaughterhouse was burned in Oregon, for example, to protest the killing of wild horses brought in from the range.
The overall goal of the ELF — defined in a 2001 pamphlet distributed by its North American press office — is to use "direct action in the form of economic sabotage to stop the exploitation and destruction of the natural environment."
Handling a case as terrorism can influence the number of arson and other charges that a prosecutor may seek from a grand jury. And, if terrorism is proved as a motive for arson, federal sentencing guidelines recommend substantially longer prison terms.
"There was never any question about how these [crimes] would be treated," said Stephen Peifer, a Portland-based assistant U.S. attorney involved in the prosecution.
During the second term of the Clinton administration, FBI, state and local officials started searching for leads among the Eugene anarchist community and others who joined in more militant environmental actions.
But the current indictments are coming down in a much different, post-9/11 era, when terrorism is a central focus of the Bush administration.
Arson attacks in the Pacific Northwest fell off after the 2001 UW arson fire. But elsewhere in the nation, there has been plenty of activity, and the FBI ranks the ALF and ELF among the nation's top domestic-terrorism threats.
"There is no question as you look over the past several years at the amount of damage, at the amount of criminal activity that has been racked up by these various groups, that animal-rights extremists and ecoterrorists are way out in front in terms of the damage they are causing in the United States," said John Lewis, deputy FBI director, at a U.S. Senate hearing last May.
Since 1976, animal-rights and environmental militants have been involved in more than 1,100 actions that have caused more than $110 million worth of damage, according to FBI statistics.
The FBI is worried that some groups want to ratchet up the violence.
Huntingdon Life Sciences, a British company with operations in the U.S. that uses animals in drug tests, has been a major target.
In England, the birthplace of the ALF, three masked assailants beat Huntington's managing director with baseball bats. An animal-rights activist was sentenced to three years in prison for the crime.
In the U.S., company researchers have received threatening phone calls warning them to stop experiments with animals. Executives who work for or do business with the company have had their homes and other property vandalized.
In 2003, two California companies with ties to Huntington were hit with bombs, including one wrapped in nails, according to the FBI. The bombs caused no injuries but the attacker appeared ready to harm people.
"Now you will reap what you have sown. All customers and their families are considered legitimate targets. ... No more will all the killing be done by the oppressors," said a communiqué claiming credit for the attacks from a group called the "Revolutionary Cells of the Animal Liberation Brigade."
The California attack appears to reflect a rift among some animal-rights militants.
The ALF advocates "direct action" attacks against property, such as laboratories and slaughterhouses, but rejects harming humans.
Meanwhile, splinter groups believe that it may be morally justified to injure or even kill a human being — if the action could save many animal lives, according to Jerry Vlasak, a Los Angeles trauma surgeon who has acted as a spokesman for the ALF since 2004.
FBI officials say such beliefs justify investigating these cases aggressively as terrorist acts.
Earlier this year, an FBI affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in California disclosed how that agency recruited an informant to infiltrate the movement.
The affidavit details the two-year odyssey of an informant who was granted authority to participate in illegal activity as she journeyed about the U.S. She helped set up surveillance of three militants as they allegedly prepared for sabotage of California targets, and was paid $75,000 for her work, according to Mark Reichel, an attorney representing one of the militants.
Who should investigate?
In making its 2003 recommendations, the FBI Office of Inspector General said that funneling those cases from the counterterrorism to the criminal investigative division would free up more terrorism investigators to pursue threats such as those posed by Islamic fundamentalists.
The FBI has rejected that suggestion, saying the investigations are best handled by counterterrorism agents, since the groups are often organized like terrorist cells.
Some outside the agency question the FBI's ranking of those groups as a top domestic-terrorism threat, since they haven't killed or injured people.
Among the domestic-terrorism incidents included in the FBI database, individuals with ties to white-supremacist and other anti-government groups killed six people and injured more than 135 people since 1996.
During the past decade, the Justice Department has uncovered numerous right-wing plots to assassinate police officers, judges, politicians and civil-rights figures, as well as to amass missiles, explosives and chemical weapons, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report.
"In my opinion, they [the FBI] are mistaking the frequency of incidents with the overall threat," said Mark Potok, editor of a report that monitors extremist crimes for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published May 7, 2006, was corrected May 16, 2006. In a previous version of this article, the name of Huntingdon Life Sciences, a company that uses animals in drug testing, was misspelled.
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