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Terrorist by Association (cont’d)

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COINTELPRO redux?

While many in the legal world condemn the material support law, the subpoenaed activists are focusing their anger on those responsible for the grand jury and the home raids–the Justice Department and the FBI. The activists say the fervor of the current harassment is reminiscent of the agency’s COINTELPRO program of the 1950s and 1960s that targeted Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Black Panther leaders, among many others. (The long-running operation, which officially ended in 1971, also targeted the entire “New Left” movement, including Students for a Democratic Society, a chapter of which Weiner advises at her college.)

“This is just another in a long line of cases of FBI and government oppression against people who think like we do and try to do social justice work to make changes in this country and other places,” says Palestinian solidarity activist Hatem Abudayyeh, whose five-year-old daughter was home when the FBI raided his Chicago house. (Many of the subpoenas demanded activists produce any records of money given to Abudayyeh, as well as PFLP and FARC.)

Two trends over the past few years are particularly disturbing, according to Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, which advocates local legislation protecting civil liberties. First, the government is criminalizing speech that was formerly constitutionally protected, and second, the FBI is regaining access to intrusive investigative tactics. Buttar co-wrote a November 19 letter to the Obama administration and Congress signed by 45 advocacy organizations, that noted “an ongoing trend of intrusive government surveillance of progressive activists in the United States.”

The same week the FBI raided activists’ homes, the Justice Department’s Inspector General released a report saying the agency had improperly spied on American activists involved in First Amendment-protected activities in the years following 9/11. The report, which reviewed FBI investigations between 2002 and 2006 of advocacy groups including Greenpeace and the Religious Society of Friends (i.e. the Quakers), said the FBI had inappropriately labeled nonviolent civil disobedience as terrorism, thereby improperly placing activists on federal terrorist watch lists.

Weiner says what angers her most about the FBI raid on her home is that the agents’ motivations were cloaked in secrecy; they didn’t have to provide any evidence of criminal activity. “The trauma is due to the [FBI’s] audacity–they took the broadest approach–they didn’t know what they were looking for.”

Buttar says that FBI surveillance of activists without any implicating evidence has “accelerated” under the Obama administration. In December 2008, former Attorney General Michael Mucasey issued more permissive guidelines governing FBI investigations. Current Attorney General Eric Holder could amend those guidelines but has not. “We had thought that these abuses had ended after the [post-Watergate] Church Committee,” Buttar says. “But the FBI’s abuses of the constitutional rights of activists have only expanded under Obama.”

Barbara Ransby, who along with Barack Obama was an anti-apartheid activist while a student at Columbia University in the early 1980s, says that given the long history of abusive FBI surveillance of political activists, the recent raids aren’t surprising. But the fact that it happened under the first black U.S. president matters. “In some ways that gives it more cover,” says Ransby, now a historian at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who spoke at a recent meeting of the Chicago chapter of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. “It makes people hesitant to see it as an attack. As a community of progressives, at moments like this, we really have to step up and embrace people who are under attack and defend them without question.”

‘Undemocratic and biased’ grand jury system

The activists directly affected have not hesitated to see the raids and subpoenas as attacks. Just weeks after the raids, those subpoenaed and their allies formed the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, which is demanding an end to “the repression of anti-war and international solidarity activists,” the return of all materials confiscated by the FBI (some have already been returned) and an end to the grand jury proceeding, which began in August 2009.

“I don’t think there’s anything fair about a grand jury,” says Tom Burke, a central organizer of the committee who was subpoenaed in Grand Rapids, Mich., after the FBI followed him to a coffee shop. “There’s no judge, you aren’t allowed to have your lawyer with you. … It’s a totally undemocratic and biased system, and it would be foolish to cooperate.”

The grand jury system was imported from England by American colonists, who often used it to defend their rights and express grievances against the king’s policies. But the unique subpoena power of the modern grand jury system, in use virtually nowhere else, has long since morphed into something different, according to attorney Deutsch. Since the Nixon era, he says, the Justice Department has used grand juries against political activists, “forcing them to testify [through compulsory immunity], even what I call ‘interning’ them without charges.”

If a subpoenaed person refuses to testify before the grand jury after being offered immunity by the government, she can be jailed for contempt–without ever having been convicted of a crime. The government considers this “coercion” a means of compelling testimony rather than punishment; famous victims include former Weather Underground member Bernadine Dohrn and former New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Jail is an immediate possibility for some of the 14 activists, three of whom were re-subpoenaed in November. (The Justice Department let all of their initial appearance dates pass after they refused to testify.)

But while Dohrn and Miller were released after less than 12 months, the uncooperative activists could face much more time because the current grand jury is investigating support for terrorism. (“Terrorism enhancement” sentencing guidelines, passed after the Oklahoma City bombing, allow judges to dramatically increase sentences if an offense “involved, or was intended to promote, a federal crime of terrorism.”)

“They’re not just looking at a few months in jail if they don’t testify, they’re looking at years,” says Deutsch, pointing to the case of Abdelhaleem Ashqar as the most egregious recent example of grand jury abuse. In 2007, a federal judge sentenced Ashqar, a Palestinian and former professor of business administration at Howard University, to more than 11 years in prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury–after he was acquitted of all terrorism-related charges.

He remains imprisoned.

Solidarity drives pushback

While they’d rather go to jail than be part of what they call a “government witch hunt,” the 14 subpoenaed activists are trying to avoid both outcomes by pressuring members of Congress and encouraging street protests around the country. In October, the Committee to Stop FBI Repression organized protests outside of the FBI’s Chicago and Minneapolis offices, and during the week of November 29, it spearheaded a series of protests in cities across the country.

The committee also sent a delegation to Washington D.C. in November that met four members of Congress, including Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), and Andrea Martin, the executive director of the Progressive Caucus. No politician had committed to sending a “Dear Colleague” letter to fellow representatives, but committee members are hoping that protests outside home district offices, a national petition letter to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, and additional visits to the Capitol will cause influential people to condemn the grand jury investigation.

While the Justice Department’s next step is unclear–it could offer immunity to those subpoenaed, push for indictments or impanel a new grand jury after the current one expires in February–the reaction to its investigation is not. More than 140 organizations from around the country, including the Green Party, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and dozens of labor unions and councils, have condemned the government’s actions.

Jess Sundin, the antiwar activist who traveled to Colombia 10 years ago, sees those actions as an affront to her freedoms–and conscience. “The idea that it could be against the law for Americans to meet with people who our government doesn’t support–I never imagined that that was illegal,” Sundin said at a November 13 meeting of Seattle United Against FBI Repression. “I always believed that we had a right and responsibility to speak our opinions and to dissent when our government is making mistakes.”

UPDATE: On December 3 and 8, after In These Times’ January 2011 issue went to press, five additional Chicago-area Palestinian solidarity activists were subpoenaed by the Grand Jury, bringing the total number of individuals called to testify to 19.

Jeremy Gantz was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012. His January 2011 cover story for the magazine, "Terrorist by Association," was selected as a finalist for the Molly National Journalism Award 2012. He is now a contributing editor to the magazine, focusing on labor issues.

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