A Tree-Hugging Terrorist Behind Every Bush?

Bright green characters on the hand-lettered sign proclaimed, “You’re not
gonna scare the GREEN out of me.” The sign was held high by an activist
outside the imposing federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, as proceedings
began inside to impose sentences on ten environmental and animal rights
activists rounded up in the government’s Operation Backfire net, dubbed
the Green Scare by environmentalists and civil libertarians. 

A substantial crowd gathered, and throngs of media buzzed around, as the
sentencing hearings began in the last days of May, following a “terrorism
enhancement” hearing on May 15. Unfortunately, most mainstream environmental
groups have shied away from comment, much less solidarity, with Green Scare
defendants, as federal prosecutors brand the defendants facing property
destruction charges as terrorists. 

Terrorists? Are young activists taking direct action to new levels or has
the government dusted off Senator Joe McCarthy’s brush used during the
Red Scare of the 1950s? 

After 11 environmental and animal rights activists were named in grand
jury indictments in January 2006, linking them with acts of property destruction
and arson, activists and civil rights attorneys have pointed to what they
regard as a government vendetta against radical environmental and animal
rights activists and self-identified “green anarchists.” Indeed, the FBI
announced in 2005 that the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal
Liberation Front (ALF) had become their number one domestic terrorism priority.

ELF and ALF have claimed responsibility for more than 1,200 incidents of
environmentally-motivated acts of sabotage, animal release, and direct
actions since coming on the scene in 1990. Significantly—and ELF and ALF
say very deliberately— those 1,200 actions had zero injuries. 

New Laws 

Even as government prosecutors entered into plea negotiations to avoid
lengthy, expensive, and political trials, they made clear they would seek
“terrorism enhancement” on sentences handed down in federal court. This
could increase prison time by as much as two decades on top of recommended
sentences, as well as placing severe restrictions on the young activists
while in prison. In the past, terrorism enhancement was applied only to
international terrorism. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the provision
was expanded to include domestic terrorism, but still applied only to crimes
targeting people, not property. Passage of the PATRIOT Act in 2001, however,
further broadened the definition to include “dangerous acts meant to coerce
or influence the government.” 

Public support for most cases of terrorism prosecution rides on concerns
for safety and protection of the populace. Environmental and civil rights
advocates, however, charge the protection of corporate property, not imminent
threats to the masses, is at the core of new laws proposed at the state
and federal level, ostensibly to fight “eco-terrorism.” As an example,
the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), signed into law by President
Bush on November 27, 2006 expands an existing federal statute to prescribe
harsher penalties for physical disruption of (or conspiring to disrupt)
an “animal enterprise” (e.g., animal testing labs that impose torturous
procedures on animals for cosmetics companies, slaughterhouses, mink farms,
veal factories, etc.), thereby instilling a “reasonable fear” in company
heads. A “reasonable fear” in one person could be common sense precautions
in another, particularly if they are in the business of pouring caustic
chemicals into the open eyes of caged rabbits, and might expect opposition
to those practices. 

A bill passed by Maine’s legislature in 2006 established the crime of “environmental
terrorism” as acts “dangerous to human life or destructive to property
or business practices” when the purpose of the act is to “protest the practices
of a person or business with respect to an environmental or natural resource
issue” resulting in a significant interruption of business or loss of revenues.
Legislation passed in Pennsylvania last year also increases the severity
of charges and sentencing of civil disobedience activities if they interfere
with people engaged in resource extraction, agricultural research, or animal
experimentation. Most of these new laws are either written by or promoted
by the conservative corporate lobby organization American Legislative Exchange
Council—funded by the likes of Chevron, the American Petroleum Institute,
Corrections Corporation of America, Philip Morris, Exxon, International
Paper, and hundreds of others. 

Operation Backfire charged people with conspiracy and with setting fires
in several western states. Targets included a corral for wild horses rounded
up to slaughter for pet food, the Vail, Colorado ski resort’s expansion
into endangered lynx habitat, SUV yards, and other sites the saboteurs
found to be icons of ecological destruction or animal cruelty. No injuries
resulted, though damage was in the millions of dollars, so hefty restitution
requirements accompany the prison terms, ranging from 3 to 13 years so
far. By comparison, a Forest Service employee convicted in 1999 of setting
35 fires in order to collect overtime pay was sentenced to three years
of probation and a period of house arrest. 

Many see the new spate of so-called eco-terrorism laws as an expansion
of the FBI’s long-standing agenda to criminalize dissent and part of an
intensely political agenda that ignores the adequacy of existing laws to
prosecute people for property destruction. Current laws spell out median
sentences in the five to eight year range, absent other factors, like serious
injury. Provisions for restitution meted out through the courts are common.
Saddling the Oregon defendants with the terrorism label could send them
to maximum-security prisons, land them in 23-hour-a-day lockdown and otherwise
severely restrict visitation and phone calls from family. 

Does an ever-expanding definition of terrorism that puts property destruction
on a par with violent killing better ensure safety of the populace? Or
does it make light of the pain and suffering of victims of attacks like
the Oklahoma City bombing and the World Trade Center? Attorney and director
of Oregon’s Civil Liberties Defense Center Lauren Regan remarked, “When
everyone is called terrorist, then no one is. If a mon- keywrencher is
the same as Osama bin Laden, where is the distinction drawn?” 

It seems unlikely that anyone or anything, except for the bottom line of
a few corporations, will be safer with the ELF/ALF defendants behind bars.
Besides, those indicted had left their more extreme tactics behind them
with their youth as they pursued other forms of activism. Ranging in age
from 26 to 41, as compared to the youthful span of 16 to 32 when the crimes
were committed, their activist career pursuits now run the gamut from EMT/volunteer
fire- fighter in rural Oregon to support staff at a women’s center for
domestic violence to medical student to journalist. 

The Eugene case is far from being the only grand jury indictment related
to crimes of sabotage in the name of environmental defense and what people
call the Green Scare is far from over. The ten people in court in Eugene
May 26 through June 5 are now being assigned to federal prisons around
the country and most had the terrorism enhancement imposed on their charges.
The case of Jonathan Paul, the last to be sentenced, was held over until
August 1 due to mistakes in the judge’s sentencing guideline calculations.
In addition: 

  • Two women connected to the Eugene indictments will be sentenced this fall
    after their “performance” testifying in a colleagues’ trial is taken into

  • The principal informant, indeed the former activist (and serial arsonist
    and heroin addict) who broke the case for the FBI, Jake Ferguson, has yet
    to be brought to court, despite the fact that he holds the longest rap
    sheet for the arsons. 

  • A young mother and violin teacher in California will go to trial in September
    for Operation Backfire charges, likely with terrorist enhancement requested
    by the government, based solely on testimony from an informant. 

  • Rod Coronado, a well-known Native American environmental and animal rights
    activist in Arizona, is facing charges handed down by a San Diego grand
    jury related to a public speech he gave. In answer to a question from the
    audience at the end of the speech, he described an act of property destruction
    carried out years earlier for which he served prison time. The government
    calls that “teaching terrorism.” 

  • Activists in Sacramento face conspiracy charges after being entrapped by
    an undercover agent posing as an activist, although no action actually
    took place. In that case, the defendants’ lawyers have filed motions to
    divulge illegal wiretapping in the case. 

All these Green Scare defendants are being threatened with draconian sentences
and the terrorist label. 

The real life drama of the government’s Operation Backfire has dealt a
blow to the radical environmental movement. Trusted communities and alliances
were blown apart when the dominoes of government informants started toppling
and, once it started, most fell flat quickly. Former colleagues, affinity
group members, housemates, and lovers have been driven worlds apart after
the wedge of government coercion came crashing into their lives. Threats
of life sentences plus hundreds of years were delivered over jail house
tables, and defendants sought deals with the devil in hopes of regaining
their lives. When the dust settled, the most “cooperating” defendants gained
was an 18-month reduction in their sentence and praise from the judge for
being “heroes” for turning their friends in. Part of the deal is a life-
long commitment to the federal government to assist in investigations. 

A question still unanswered is how far the FBI, not particularly known
for its embrace of political dissent, will go with fewer bounds on conducting
surveillance. Will other environmental campaign strategies that target
corporations, with civil disobedience and market campaigns, become targets
of aggressive prosecution because of their effect on the corporate bottom
line? Journalist Gar Smith in his piece published on the environmental
website the Edge admonishes us to remember who the real eco-terrorists
are, illustrated by fines levied against them for vandalizing nature’s
property: Exxon ($125 million), Louisiana-Pacific ($43 million), Rockwell
International ($20 million), Chevron ($6.5 million), Chemical Waste Management
($3 million)—the list goes on. It is a question of priorities, principles,
and fair prosecution. And perhaps the future of environmental protest. 


Karen Pickett is a long-time political activist based in California, affiliated
with Earth First!, the Civil Rights Outreach Committee, and other organizations.