Activists charged with ‘eco-terrorism’ under post-9/11 law

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For a federal law that was “non-controversial” enough to pass both congressional houses without a vote, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) sure is receiving an awful lot of backlash from animal rights activists and civil libertarians alike. A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of AETA recently brought to light documents kept by the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force on several animal rights activists who went undercover to investigate conditions at factory farms. In the FBI’s opinion, the activists’ actions – which prior to 2003 were commonly accepted expressions of free speech, civil disobedience and investigative journalism – now amount to…wait for it…terrorism.

Advocates (such as S. 3880 sponsor Dianne Feinstein) say that AETA protects businesses and academic institutions from “economic loss” incurred through “conspiratorial” actions of covert groups like the Animal Liberation Front. But many political activists fear that the law will be (and has been) used to muzzle a broad range of legitimate (non-violent) protest activities in the name of protecting corporate profits. The latest Freedom of Information Act discovery by animal rights activist Ryan Shapiro, one of the activists mentioned in the FBI report, provides evidence in support of this claim.

The document details the work of several animal rights activists who “illegally entered buildings owned by [redacted] Farm… and videotaped conditions of animals.” Their actions, which included the release of several animals from what the activists called inhumane conditions, were not only admitted to, but were trumpeted to media outlets through press releases and interviews, as the FBI agent notes.

The activists in question say their trespassing was an exercise of civil disobedience. Federal investigators, on the other hand, say that there “is a reasonable indication” that the activists “have violated the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, 18 USC Section 43 (a).”

Will Potter, independent journalist and author of Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, blogs extensively about how animal rights and environmental activists are now being targeted by federal agents as “eco-terrorists” and what the political and social ramifications of such enforcement precedent are. He writes in a recent article:

When I testified before Congress against the AETA in 2006, one of the primary concerns I raised is that the law could be used to wrap up a wide range of activity that threatens corporate profits. Supporters of the AETA have repeatedly denied this, and said the law will only be used against people who do things like burn buildings.

So how do we explain that such a sweeping prosecution was being considered in 2003, under the law’s somewhat-narrower precursor?

One possibility is that FBI agents lack training, education, and oversight. They are spying on political activists without understanding or respecting the law.

Another explanation is that this document is no mistake, nor is it an isolated case. It is a reflection of a coordinated campaign to target animal rights activists who, as the FBI agent notes, cause “economic loss” to corporations.

In an email exchange with Shapiro, Potter quotes him as saying,

“It is deeply sobering to see one’s name in an FBI file proposing terrorism charges. It is even more sobering to realize the supposedly terroristic activities in question are merely exposing the horrific cruelty of factory farms, educating the public about what goes on behind those closed doors, and openly rescuing a few animals from one of those farms as an act of civil disobedience.”

The most noteworthy prosecution case under AETA came in 2009, when four individuals were indicted for organizing a peaceful protest (on public property) outside the homes of professors conducting research using live animal testing. Defendants had to endure house arrest for almost a year before the charges were dismissed. The AETA thus became an effective tool to silence anti-corporate modes of free speech that law enforcement could utilize simply by choosing to pursue an investigation.

Could this legislation, as Potter suggests, lay the groundwork for corporate retaliation against Occupy Wall Street protestors? Already, the law “has been slowly, methodically expanded to include the tactics of national organizations like the Humane Society of the United States,” he notes.