Interview: GreenIsTheNewRed.com’s Will Potter on Transformation of Dissent into a Domestic Terrorism Threat
A report from the Congressional Research Service was recently released and it looked at how law enforcement had been cracking down on animal rights and environmental activists. It highlighted how the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is used against activists.
Will Potter of GreenistheNewRed.com covered the report in a post on October 2. The report, as he noted, cited his book, Green is the New Red, in a section called, “A Serious Domestic Concern or ‘Green Scare?” It also paid particular attention to right wing violence versus environmental activism.
Will and I had a discussion about the report, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, how this report was a kind of breakthrough, how it might be considered alongside a recent Senate subcommittee report on Homeland Security fusion centers and the scope of systemic changes in law enforcement since September 11 that have greatly impacted people not just in the environmental and animal rights activism communities but also in American society.
Below is a transcript of the interview.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA, The Dissenter: Describe the congressional report released and what you happened to find.
WILL POTTER, GreenIstheNewRed.com: This congressional report was prepared by the Congressional Research Service, which is the official government agency that’s really the investigative arm of Congress. And it was a look at the domestic terrorist threat in the United States. As part of these reports, CRS gives a pretty detailed overview of the general landscapes of these issues and then highlights specific cases and then make recommendations on areas Congress should consider moving forward.
This report was really interesting because it focuses heavily on the classification on animal rights and environmental activists as domestic terrorists and raises very interesting questions that Congress is urged to consider about the ramifications of that. I think most important in the report is the really historic contrast between right wing groups that have a history of violence —and according to the report incidents of violence are actually increasing—and then the nonviolent actions of environmentalists. And, according to the report itself, it sends a very mixed message to Congress and also to the general public, who are paying attention to these issues.
GOSZTOLA: This raised some issues around the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. What can you say about that and how it has been used?
POTTER: In one specific section of the report, it looked at the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and it notes that there are inconsistencies in how the FBI labels groups as terrorists versus extremists or plain criminals. And the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act has given us an example of this and [the report] goes so far as to say that lawmakers should examine why a specific terrorism law only covers crimes are ideologically motivated against corporations while there is no similar law targeting right wing extremism. And I think that really cuts to the heart of the danger of this legislation.
Essentially, this is a conservative argument to note that carving out a piece of legislation for one group of people sets a dangerous precedent for law enforcement and that exactly what this legislation is doing. It opens up a dangerous window of opportunity for lawmakers to do the same in targeting other social movements.
GOSZTOLA: It seemed like, in the way that you wrote about this report, there was a breakthrough in the presentation by the people who put together this report. They had not ever raised these issues about the treatment of dissent. You highlighted a question in the report: “How does a particular brand of dissent become a domestic terrorism threat?” What are your thoughts on this aspect of the report?
POTTER: I think that’s a really good point. In a lot of ways, this is a significant departure from previous congressional reports and previous discussions inside the Beltway in Washington about these issues. There are all sorts of investigations into domestic terrorism, but unfortunately quite rare to see serious questions about the ramifications of this and, this report in particular, some of the questions were quite direct and astute, which is also very rare.
This question of, “How does a particular brand of dissent become a domestic terrorism threat?” is on its face so self-evident that it is a primary question that politicians should be asking of law enforcement when talking about these issues. That question has been completely ignored for over a decade. No one has bothered to ask, how do we explain why some political activists are being labeled as terrorists while others are not?
To answer the question, I think the report makes quite clear that we need some kind of accountability for the FBI. The FBI needs to provide information about the criteria involved in process, the number of crimes that have been investigated as domestic terrorism and how they’re affiliated with different social movements, what specific criteria are used to determine the level of severity of these groups and then how do you pull out animal rights activists as the number one domestic terrorist threat. What questions went into doing that? And all these things I think to an outsider are just kind of like duh moments. These are things that any normal person would ask given the opportunity but unfortunately we just don’t see that and I think it is an important development.
Now, of course, it needs to be said that there is no guarantee whatsoever that members of Congress will actually ask these kinds of tough questions and try to provide some kind of checks and balances on the FBI’s power, but I think this is an indication that there certainly should be some debate.
GOSZTOLA: The report was put together in May 2012. A Senate subcommittee recently released a report on Homeland Security fusion centers, which demonstrated how they have been useless and have not contributing anything constructive to the fight against terrorism but have violated people’s constitutional rights. They’ve violated the rights of people just handing out leaflets on sidewalks. What would you say about the whole apparatus that has brought us to the point where Congress is now looking at fusion centers and is now looking at the FBI designating animal rights activists as terrorists? And where has Congress been the most derelict in its duty to provide oversight?
POTTER: I think both of these reports—and really the changing discussion we’re seeing right now—are really a reflection of the scope of the systemic changes that we’ve seen not just in law enforcement but in all the politics and our culture since September 11th. I think we’re really only hitting the tip of the iceberg in terms of how all these different pieces fit together.
This congressional report that I wrote about focuses heavily on the FBI specifically and how the Bureau is handling what it calls domestic terrorism, how it’s investigating it and why it’s classifying some things and not others. The fusion centers report is part and parcel of that. The fusion centers are not totally FBI. They are in coordination with local and federal law enforcement. And I think the two of those together give us an accurate, although limited, description of the scope of this problem. And it’s really affected all levels of law enforcement in shaping how groups are classified as terrorists and how sweeping surveillance powers are used to investigate political activists and also everyday people, who are not activists, who have no connections to anything that reasonable people would call terrorism.
If I were pressed to pinpoint the specific areas where I think Congress has been most derelict in its duty, I would start from the top and start not necessarily at the fusion centers. I would go straight to the top of the FBI and Justice Department and currently the Obama administration and ask what kind of checks and balances are actually determining how the FBI is determining its law enforcement priorities. I think that’s the main question in which all other questions flow because these fusion centers are really attempts at getting local and state law enforcement hands in the government’s pile of money for counterterrorism efforts.
All of these reports that come out of the fusion centers are attempts to justify counterterrorism operations in order to qualify for federal funding and federal resources. So I think the question is who is deciding these priorities and to what extent are they directly initiated by corporate interests. I don’t think that’s a question that Congress is going to be asking any time soon but I think at the very least we can start to push Congress to ask tough questions about how the FBI is determining its policies.
GOSZTOLA: What have you noted has been the effect of having the surveillance network that sprouted with fusion centers and having the FBI? You wrote a whole entire book, Green is the New Red, and explored this fully, but what specifically are activists really experiencing as this expands and runs amok?
POTTER: Reports like this and discussion of national security policy and FBI and Congress—It really does lose sight of the fact that throughout all of this real people are affected. What I see in my reporting is that the consequences of these policies for individuals can be quite dire. They can be dire, when people are fit with outrageous prison sentences for their political activism, people like Tim DeChristopher, who is in prison for two years right now for civil disobedience. And it can be dire for the activists that are involved in activism in Texas right now and were entrapped and urged to use nonviolent civil disobedience that was later classified as a felony.
So, those are some specific instances about the consequences these policies have in disrupting lives but it goes a lot further than that because a big theme throughout all of my work is the nature of fear and how fear of terrorism, fear of this concept of terrorism, is being exploited to push a corporate political agenda. And that’s more difficult to quantify but I think it is much more dangerous because this rhetoric of terrorism has become so engrained in our culture that it’s made people of afraid of routine forms of activism—being investigated, being jailed, being potentially prosecuted as a criminal or felony activity as terrorists. And that is incredibly destructive to any semblance of a democracy. Any democracy that has its national policy guided by fear and making people afraid to speak out, lest they be labeled a terrorist, is fatally flawed. I think that’s really a consequence of everything that’s happened in this policy arena.
GOSZTOLA: This also disproves the myth that if you are not doing anything illegal then you have nothing to fear. You don’t have to worry about the wide surveillance state prying into your life.
POTTER: Absolutely, and I think that’s part of the mythology that has been created all of these policies since September 11th. Every step of the way, the American people have been told you don’t have anything to worry about. It’s this specter of terrorism that’s being targeted, that’s looming around every corner. But, we’re seeing, with every month, every year, every prosecution that goes by, that’s not what’s being targeted. What’s being targeted is us and our everyday lives through this massive surveillance apparatus, through these specific prosecutions. And I think more and more people are starting to understand the scope of that and the ramifications, that this War on Terrorism isn’t about some foreign terrorist threat, which was used to justify it in the early stages. The War on Terrorism is really about chilling dissent through the power of fear.
*For the latest coverage of how the United States’ national security apparatus is being pushed by the corporate state to crack down on activists, follow @will_potter on Twitter and visit GreenistheNewRed.com