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Are So-Called 'Eco-Terrorists' Falsely Prosecuted?

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The Pennsylvania homeland security office is in the news this week, and receiving a heavy dose of well deserved scrutiny. It seems the office has been distributing anti-terrorism bulletins to state police and other public officials. The "terrorist activities" targeted by the bulletins have included such dire threats to public safety as anti-BP candlelight vigils, peaceful demonstrations by anti-war groups, gay and lesbian festivals, a screening of the documentary "Gasland," and an animal rights protest at a Montgomery County rodeo.

Governor Ed Rendell has apologized, but continues to support James Powers, his homeland security director. Powers, who authorized spending $125,000 of the state's money for the information contained in the bulletins, said his office is charged with preventing damage to critical infrastructure in the state. He did not explain exactly how protests against a local rodeo amounted to threats against critical infrastructure.

What is Powers' justification? What is he thinking? Could he be more concerned with monitoring political activities which he says "foment dissent" than with finding actual potential terrorists?

If so, he's not alone. More than a few public officials have been labeling as "terrorists" people whose beliefs and activities threaten the status quo. If Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi were alive today, would they find themselves prosecuted as terrorists?

Increasingly, corporations and politicians alike are labeling activists "eco-terrorists" and national security threats. It's like red- baiting, with a new green twist.

Consider, for example, the case of Eric McDavid. Barely 30- years-old, he is currently serving a nearly 20-year sentence as a convicted "terrorist."

Eric McDavid grew up in Orangevale, California, a middle class suburb northeast of Sacramento. An easy-going young man, he worked as a carpenter in order to attend Sierra College, where he studied philosophy and conflict resolution. He opposed the Iraq war, and as an expression of his commitment to be kind to animals, became a vegan.

His parents, who both stem from Midwestern farming families, raised Eric to respect the earth. They were bewildered when FBI agents showed up at the family home looking for their son. Eric, they told the agents, was not a troublemaker. Far from it, he was an affable peacemaker. When his younger sisters would fight, he would mediate.

When spiders were found in the house, he would take them, by hand, back to the garden. But Eric was in trouble. He had fallen in love with a young woman who said her name was Anna. He didn't know she was lying about her name, nor that she was only pretending to be an environmental activist. He didn't know that she was being paid by the FBI to be an informant.

Believing Anna was his soul mate and desperate for her affection, Eric followed her lead. When he talked about his grief and anger at the deterioration of the environment, Anna challenged him to act on his convictions. At the behest of the FBI, Anna presented Eric and his friends with bomb-making recipes. Funded by the FBI, she financed their transportation, food and housing.

At one point Erik sent her an email pouring out his feelings for her. In an interview with Elle magazine, Anna later described how the FBI responded when she showed the email to her handlers at the agency. "They said if he makes another advance, what you need to say to him in order to calm him, to mollify him, is that we need to put the mission first. There's time for romance later." As Anna continued to string Eric along, she encouraged him and the others to develop a plan and stick to it. According to the Sacramento News & Review, "Documents from the investigation show that whenever the group started to lose focus, or to have second thoughts, Anna badgered them about being all talk."

Trying to impress her, Eric went along. He did not know that her actions were, in the words of Will Potter, a leading authority on civil liberties post 9/11, "part of a deliberate, calculated and coordinated effort to infiltrate activist groups and land 'terrorism' convictions, even if it means breaking the rules and provoking criminal activity."

Anna spent a year and a half working with the FBI to entrap a man who had fallen in love with her. Finally, Eric and two others were arrested and charged with a single count of "conspiracy to damage and destroy property by fire and an explosive." Though no actual fire had ever been started, no explosive detonated, and no property damaged or destroyed, Eric was treated as a malevolent and dangerous terrorist. He was denied bail, despite having no prior criminal record and no history of violence. He spent almost two years pre-trial in solitary confinement.

How seriously the government took the case can be seen by who they brought in as lead prosecutor. R. Steven Lapham was no stranger to high profile terrorism cases. He had previously prosecuted the Unabomber, Ted Kacynski, and also members of a militia group who had conspired to blow up two large propane tanks in Elk Grove, California, in order to start the second American Revolution.

McDavid's attorney, Mark Reichel, defended his client by saying that he was a victim of entrapment. "There has never been a case in America," said Reichel, "that has involved this much entrapment, this much pushing by an informant... and by the FBI behind it."

But the jury was given false information about "Anna" and her role in the events that had taken place. After the trial, one of the jurors, Diane Bennett, issued a formal declaration to the court, complaining that she and the other jurors had been gravely misled:

"During deliberations, we asked the court to please clarify for the jury the issue of whether Anna was a government agent, and if so, when did she become one... The written answer was from the court and stated 'no' that she was not a government agent... Once the written response advised Anna was not a government agent, we then changed to a guilty verdict."

Eric McDavid was found guilty in September, 2007, and sentenced to 19 years and 7 months in prison, far longer than the average sentence given to violent child molesters and many murderers. The U.S. Attorney's office promptly issued a press release proudly trumpeting "Eco-Terrorist Given Nearly Twenty Years In Prison." The statement made no mention of the fact that an informant and provocateur had been involved. It mentioned, only briefly and in passing, a "confidential source."

Since 9/11, the U.S. government has prosecuted more than 20 "terrorism" cases involving environmental activists. In so doing, the government has redefined environmentally motivated property destruction, such as torching Hummers or destroying tree-felling equipment, as being tantamount to the murderous assaults of Al Qaeda.

Some of us may think the nation should turn its terror focus to Al Qaeda and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Others, including experts at the Pentagon, are worried about the colossal national security threat posed by climate change. But apparently there are federal officials who for whatever reason consider the threat posed by "eco-terrorists" to be priority number one. This, even though no act of environmental protest, even those where property has been intentionally damaged, has ever resulted in a single human death.

John Robbins is the author of The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less. His other bestsellers include The Food Revolution and Diet For a New America. John is the recipient of the Rachel Carson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, the Peace Abbey's Courage of Conscience Award, and Green America's Lifetime Achievement Award. For more info about his work, or to sign up for his email list, visit johnrobbins.info

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