Domestic Spying and Civil Liberties
from No Compromise Issue 29

by Will Potter

Animal rights activists have seen firsthand the government rollback of civil liberties for the past several years. There have been grand jury witch hunts, "no-fly" lists and countless F.B.I. visits. There have been roundups in the name of fighting "eco-terrorism," and animal enterprise terrorism indictments for running web sites. Lawmakers, liberals and even other activists have barely batted an eye.

But the domestic spying scandal facing President George W. Bush right now may signal that civil liberties abuses in the name of fighting terrorism-at least in the broadest sense-are reaching mainstream consciousness.

The president recently acknowledged that he authorized the National Security Administration to monitor communications of people inside the country. In other words, to spy on ordinary Americans.

Generally, the government can't do this without a court order. Government lawyers would have to go before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court and show that there was reason to believe the target of surveillance was "an agent of a foreign power." The federal judge had to approve the request, and nearly always did.

But the directive Bush signed allows snooping without even modest checks and balances, and with no judicial review: Bush allowed the National Security Administration to write and approve its own surveillance plans.

The administration came out boldly with this information, seemingly not expecting the bipartisan outrage that has ensued.

A CNN poll issued on January 23 found that most Americans were very concerned about government eavesdropping, and 58 percent even wanted a special prosecutor appointed to investigate spying.

And Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, came out with other lawmakers to say that Bush did not have the authority to sidestep the constitution, and the courts, in the name of fighting terrorism.

For activists in the trenches, this may not seem like cause for celebration. The true breadth and depth of government surveillance and harassment hasn't reached mainstream consciousness. But it could be on its way.

The task for animal rights activists, then, is a familiar one: kick things up a notch.

The reason so many non-radical Americans are concerned about spying is that it's casting a huge net over everyone in the hopes of catching a few criminals. They have a sneaking suspicion that sweeping government powers are being used against ordinary folks.

It's up to animal rights activists to instill that same suspicion, that same outrage, in ordinary Americans about the repression that this movement is facing.

There's plenty of material to pull from.

• In FebruaryMarch, seven six individuals will standwere convicted trial in New Jersey, facing over 20 years in prison and millions in fines, forof violating the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a little-known federal law pushed by animal abuse industries to deter campaigns by activists. The Shac 7-a reference to the seven individuals initially indicted- wearen't charged with burning down buildings, or breaking into labs. Their crimes strikes against them,, according to the indictmentprosecution, awere things like running a Web site and vocally supporting direct action. Sentencing has been set for June 6, with Tthe defendants include an aspiring law student, a paramedic, and a retail clerkfacing over 20 years in prison and millions in fines. These are: ordinary people- including an aspiring law student, a paramedic and a retail clerk- facbeing harassed imprisonment for trying to make a difference.

• According to hundreds of pages of government documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, the F.B.I. has been monitoring PETA meetings and activities. The ongoing surveillance included non-violent outreach like a Vegan Community Project event at the University of Indiana, and an animal rights conference in Washington, D.C. This is basic public education that millions of Americans use to advocate their beliefs: if the F.B.I. can monitor activity like this, nobody is safe from the surveillance.

• Grand juries are being used around the country as government witch hunts. Activists have been hauled before the jury regarding direct actions that took place up to 10 years ago. They're told to answer questions about their political views and political associations, and forced into jail if they assert their rights. Those called before the grand jury aren't being charged with crimes: they're just everyday people being harassed for standing up for their beliefs.

A window is beginning to open. It has been nearly five years since 9/11, and cracks are starting to show in the government's "War on Terrorism" armor. Civil liberties abuses are no longer completely accepted by everyday Americans as a necessary evil for national security. Animal rights activists should seize the opportunity to speak to Americans' fears, and send the message loud and clear: We may be the first targets, but if we don't work together-- you'll be next.

Will Potter is a freelance reporter in Washington, D.C., who has covered how the War on Terrorism has impacted civil liberties.