[Ppnews] Terrorist by Association - Justice Department targets nonviolent solidarity activists

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Dec 13 10:44:55 EST 2010

December 13, 2010

Terrorist by Association

The Justice Department targets nonviolent solidarity activists.

By <http://www.inthesetimes.com/community/profile/6159>Jeremy Gantz


September 24 began like any other Friday for Joe 
Iosbaker and Stephanie Weiner. Then, at 7 a.m., 
FBI agents knocked on the door of the Chicago 
couple’s house in the city’s North Side.

Armed with a search warrant, more than 20 agents 
examined the couple’s home, photographing every 
room and combing through notebooks, family videos 
and books, even their children’s drawings. Some 
items were connected to their decades of anti-war 
and international solidarity activism, but others 
were not. “Folders were opened, letters were 
pulled out of envelopes,” says Weiner, an adult 
education professor at Wilbur Wright College. 
“They had rubber gloves and they went through 
every aspect of our home.” (See video interview 
with Weiner and Iosbaker below.)

Ten hours after their arrival, as television news 
crews filmed and activist supporters stood on the 
sidewalk, the agents drove away with nearly 30 
boxes of material, including t-shirts and a 
photograph of Malcolm X. By that time, Iosbaker 
and Weiner had been served subpoenas to appear 
before a grand jury investigating “material 
support” for “foreign terrorist organizations.” 
And they knew theirs wasn’t the only home invaded 
that day. More than 70 FBI agents had raided 
seven residences in Chicago and Minneapolis and 
questioned activists in Michigan, California and 
North Carolina, serving subpoenas to 11 people. A 
few days later, the Justice Department subpoenaed 
three members of the Minnesota Anti-War Committee 
(AWC), whose office was also raided on September 
24. On December 3, it subpoenaed another 3 
Chicago-area activists, raising the total number 
of people called to the grand jury to 17.

The grand jury and FBI are looking for evidence 
that connects the 17 activists and their 
“potential co-conspirators” to two organizations: 
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) 
and the Popular Front for the Liberation of 
Palestine (PFLP), which are both on the State 
Department’s “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” 
list. None of the 17 has been charged with a 
crime, and all deny providing “material support,” 
including money, to any foreign organization.

Citing the Fifth Amendment, all 17 are refusing 
to testify before the grand jury, which they say 
is a secretive arm of a government intent on 
silencing critics. (The U.S. Attorney’s office 
conducting the investigation declined to comment.)

Most of those subpoenaed, including Weiner and 
Iosbaker, have been active in the labor movement 
and/or are members of the Freedom Road Socialist 
Organization (FRSO), a self-described “socialist 
and Marxist-Leninist organization” with about 100 
members. But affiliations vary: 71-year-old 
great-grandmother Sarah Martin belongs to the 
Minneapolis-based group Women Against Military 
Madness; Hatem Abudayyeh is executive director of 
the Arab American Action Network, a Chicago 
social services agency; others are connected to 
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the 
Palestine Solidarity Group-Chicago and the 
Colombia Action Network, which has protested U.S. 
military aid to Colombia and the assassinations 
of unionists there. The only connection they all 
have in common is that they all participated in 
an AWC-organized rally outside the 2008 
Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

Except for Mick Kelly and Tom Burke, FRSO members 
who have interviewed PFLP leaders, and Jess 
Sundin, who met with FARC members 10 years ago 
during a visit to Colombia, none of those 
subpoenaed say they have ever communicated 
directly with members of FARC or PFLP. But many 
of the activists are sympathetic to those 
organizations’ goals and some have traveled to 
Colombia and Palestine as part of solidarity delegations.

“Anyone who does international solidarity or 
anti-war work, anyone who goes against the grain 
of American politics, is affected by this,” says 
Kelly, a University of Minnesota cook and 
Teamster. “It’s extremely important to push back 
against this repression. It affects the movement as a whole.”

The Supreme Court’s ‘deeply chilling effect’

The phrase “material support for terrorism” 
brings to mind money and weapons, or other goods 
and services that directly support a terrorist 
organization’s violent objectives or actions. But 
in June, the Supreme Court in Holder v. 
Humanitarian Law Project upheld a much broader 
definition of material support­one that 
criminalizes speech advocating peace and human 
rights if it is “coordinated” with an official 
terrorist organization. It is this ruling that 
sets the stage for September’s raids.

“For the first time, [the court] actually says 
it’s criminal to speak out, to associate,” says 
Michael Deutsch, an attorney with the 
Chicago-based People’s Law Office and one of the 
National Lawyers Guild members working with the 
activists. “The ruling criminalizes First 
Amendment activity. It’s quite ominous.”

Material support for terrorism was first 
criminalized by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective 
Death Penalty Act of 1996. The 2001 PATRIOT Act 
broadened the definition of “material support” to 
include “expert advice or assistance” and 
provided a maximum sentence of 15 years. (The 
American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh was 
charged with, but not convicted of, providing 
material support to al Qaeda.) In 1998 the 
Humanitarian Law Project went to federal court to 
challenge the material support statute. The 
nonprofit group wanted to assist the Kurdistan 
Workers’ Party (PKK) with conflict resolution and 
human rights monitoring. It was later joined in 
the lawsuit by Tamil-American organizations 
wishing to provide medical assistance to victims 
of the 2004 South Asian tsunami, which would have 
required working with the now-defeated Tamil 
Tigers, which, like the PKK, is a State Department-listed terrorist group.

The Humanitarian Law Project argued that the 
material support law violated the First 
Amendment’s right to free speech. But a majority 
of the Supreme Court accepted the government’s 
argument­made by then-Solicitor General and 
current Justice Elena Kagan­that all nonviolent 
aid is properly illegal because it “frees up 
other resources within the organization that may 
be put to violent ends” and “legitimates” foreign 
terrorist groups. Writing for the majority, Chief 
Justice John Roberts clarified that the law only 
criminalizes speech “under the direction of, or 
in coordination with foreign groups,” leaving 
“independent advocacy” on the right side of the law.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 
Sonia Sotomayor strongly disagreed, writing: “Not 
even the ‘serious and deadly problem’ of 
international terrorism can require automatic 
forfeiture of First Amendment rights.”

University of Chicago law professor Aziz Huq 
takes issue with the court’s distinction between 
“independent” and “coordinated” speech­a critical 
distinction if any of the 17 activists are 
charged with “material support” of FARC and PFLP. 
“There is some kind of speech that is not 
possible to do independently,” Huq says. “There 
are speech interests that are squelched here.”

Deutsch agrees: “It creates a chilling effect on 
people who are challenging U.S. foreign policy. 
If you speak out for the rights of Palestinians 
or question the government of Colombia, or are 
supportive of the Kurds’ right to their homeland, 
you’ve invariably going to come into contact with 
these groups. You’re going to be advocating some 
of the things that they’re promoting.”

That’s a point familiar to former anti-apartheid 
activists, who organized to end white supremacy 
in South Africa. The anti-apartheid movement took 
direction from the African National Congress 
(ANC), which was called a terrorist organization 
by President Reagan in 1986. If the material 
support statute had been in place in the 1970s, 
the thousands of people who led anti-apartheid 
protests across the United States could have been 
considered criminals. (The ANC and its leader, 
Nelson Mandela, were not removed from the U.S. 
list of foreign terrorist organizations until 
2008, 15 years after Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize.)

“This is almost the 1950s coming back. It’s 
overreaching,” says Jim Fennerty, another 
attorney assisting the subpoenaed activists. 
Similarly, he adds, former U.S. President Jimmy 
Carter could be charged with “material support” 
for monitoring Lebanon’s 2009 elections, which 
involved coordinated activity with Hezbollah, an 
official terrorist organization that was on the ballot.

In February, when the Supreme Court heard Holder 
v. Humanitarian Law Project, David Cole, the 
Center for Constitutional Rights attorney sparred with Justice Antonin Scalia:

Cole: The New York Times, the Washington Post, 
and the L.A.Times
published op-eds by Hamas 
thereby providing a benefit to 
Hamas. [Under this statute,] they’re all criminals
President Carter­

Scalia: [Interrupting]: Well, we­we can cross that bridge when we come to it.


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 raids­the 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] audacity­they took 
the broadest approach­they 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’

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 
<http://www.stopfbi.net>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 
contempt­without 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 17 
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 jury­after 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 17 
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 
unclear­it could offer immunity to those 
subpoenaed, push for indictments or impanel a new 
grand jury after the current one expires in 
February­the 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 freedoms­and conscience. “The idea 
that it could be against the law for Americans to 
meet with people who our government doesn’t 
support­I never imagined that that was illegal. I 
always believed that we had a right and 
responsibility to speak our opinions and to 
dissent when our government is making mistakes.”

This article was updated to note the subpoenas 
delivered to additional activists on December 3, 
the day after In These Times’ January 2011 issue went to press.

Freedom Archives
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San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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