Busting the FBI
|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
LAST WEEK IN AN OAKLAND COURTROOM, A JURY OF 10 citizens found that, yes, the FBI is using the fight against terrorism to shut down political dissent. These jurors were not urban radicals; they were suburbanites from Walnut Creek and Concord, some of them wearing sequined American-flag shirts. They found that six agents of the FBI and the Oakland police twisted a murder attempt against Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, two Earth First! activists working to reform logging practices on California's North Coast, to link them falsely to domestic terrorism and aggressively slander them in the press. Of $4.4 million in damages awarded by the jury, more than 80 percent went for First Amendment violations: The FBI had tried to silence their environmental views.
This is more than just another of many recent black eyes for the FBI. It's strong evidence that the FBI is still in the business of domestic politics, and that the spirit of the 1970s FBI counterintelligence operations that killed off the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement is alive and well today. With one big difference: No jury ever ruled against those FBI tactics.
Bari's case was so overwhelming that it plowed through 11 years of FBI motions even after Bari herself died of breast cancer in 1997. "Ten Americans, once they weren't limited to hearing controlled soundbites, were able to weed through the crap and they got it," says Bob Bloom, one of the Bari-Cherney attorneys. "The FBI and law enforcement are the private army for the people who run this country."
On May 24, 1990, Bari and Cherney drove through Oakland in her Subaru on their way to a gig. Bari, then 40, a carpenter and union activist who lived in the Northern California mill town of Willits with her two preteen daughters, expected to play her fiddle and give another of her rousing talks in support of timber reform. Cherney, a few years her junior, was an Earth First! troubadour known for his sardonic tunes like "You Can't Clearcut Your Way to Heaven." The two helped organize 1990's Redwood Summer, a monthslong series of nonviolent protests in support of Proposition 130, a November ballot initiative that would preserve old-growth redwoods -- and cost the timber industry a reported $50 billion. The night before, the pair had just finished Redwood Summer plans with Berkeley-based Seeds of Peace, which would provide kitchens and logistics. Near 34th and Park, Bari stomped on the brakes to keep from making a wrong turn. As she did, a powerful motion-activated pipe bomb exploded beneath her driver's-side seat.
Los Angeles D-Fenders
TicketsFri., Feb. 24, 7:30pm
Los Angeles Clippers v San Antonio Spurs - Verified Resale Tickets
TicketsFri., Feb. 24, 7:30pm
CSUN Womens Basketball vs. Uc Riverside Highlanders Womens Basketball
TicketsSat., Feb. 25, 4:00pm
Los Angeles Lakers v San Antonio Spurs - Verified Resale Tickets
TicketsSun., Feb. 26, 12:30pm
Bari nearly died on the spot. The bomb, wrapped in finishing nails, shattered her pelvis and broke her back. Cherney was cut and bruised and temporarily deafened. The blast made a 2-by-4-foot hole in the car's floorboard. Before losing consciousness, Bari begged a nurse to let her die.
THE FIRST THOUGHT OF MANY THAT DAY, INCLUDING ME, was that this was the timber industry's Karen Silkwood. Like Silkwood, who spoke out about safety lapses in the nuclear-power industry and died under mysterious circumstances, Bari and Cherney had both been under death threats from pro-timber goons. Earth First! had drawn heavy criticism during the 1980s for advocating spiking trees with 60- penny nails to discourage sawing. Bari had almost single-handedly turned Earth First! away from spiking and monkey-wrenching of equipment, recognizing that such dangerous tactics alienated timber and mill workers. Bari, a former shop steward with the Retail Clerks Union and the Postal Workers Union, dreamed of a green-black coalition between environmentalists and workers.
But hatred for meddling Earth First! hippies ran too deep. Bari had previously been run off the road by a logging-truck driver she knew with her two baby girls in the car. She'd been threatened with death on a Fort Bragg radio station, and in phone calls from the pro-timber Yellow Ribbon Coalition. Bari had a collection of mailed death threats, one featuring her picture in the cross hairs of a rifle scope. Many of these had already been presented to the local sheriff and to the FBI. Authorities found another pile of them in the back seat of her Subaru.
The FBI, however, ignored all this and immediately accused Bari and Cherney of blowing themselves up. The bomb exploded at 11:55 a.m. By 12:20 p.m., when Oakland Police Sergeant Michael Sitterud arrived, FBI agents already blanketed the scene. Sitterud testified that the agents "said that these were the type of individuals who would be involved in transporting explosives. They said that these people, in fact, qualified as terrorists."
Thus began the web of lies, which only got deeper. Ten minutes after he arrived, Sitterud made a police-log entry describing Bari and Cherney as "Earth First leaders suspected of Santa Cruz power pole sabotage, linked with federal case of attempted destruction of nuclear power plant lines in Arizona."
Special Agent Frank Doyle, a 20-year veteran bomb expert with the FBI Terrorist Squad out of San Francisco, oversaw the collection of evidence at the scene. Doyle ran the FBI's "Bomb School," a law-enforcement event held for years on the property of Louisiana-Pacific Lumber Co., one of the firms that paid millions to defeat Prop. 130. One month earlier, Doyle had shown officers and timber security guards how to build and detonate car bombs identical to the Oakland bomb. Four of the first officers on the scene had participated in that training.
Doyle would later testify that there had been no investigation of Bari and Cherney that would have led him to portray either one as a terrorist, but in fact there were, and famously. Bari's name came up as someone affiliated with Earth First! in government documents about the allegedly "terrorist" downing of power lines in Santa Cruz in April 1990. I'd already written about the 1989 FBI Arizona operation called "THERMCON" (for "Thermite Conspiracy"), in which FBI Agent Michael Fain infiltrated Earth First! and led a sting operation, coaxing activists to use explosives to fell high-tension power lines (which they refused to do). The documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show THERMCON was still an active file during the Oakland bombing, and documents from February through May of 1990 were marked "missing from the file."
THE CRIMINAL CASE AGAINST BARI AND CHERNEY MOVED fast. As Bari underwent emergency surgery hours after the bombing, the police filed papers arresting them on suspicion of possessing explosives. The Oakland police and the FBI issued a series of press releases heralding the arrest, drilling home the Earth First!bomb connection. This went on for months, with both agencies going public with each shred of evidence against Bari and Cherney, all of which turned out to be false. Local and national papers printed everything they said.
In the meantime, the feds ransacked both Earth First! and the Bay Area environmentalist community. Agents stormed the Seeds of Peace house, as activists sat on the lawn in handcuffs and watched their computers, notes and address books being carted off. Phone records led agents to more than 500 people who had made inquiries into Redwood Summer organizing, including the media.
On the scene of the bombing, the FBI fed Oakland police two false theories that the agencies used to obtain search warrants. One was that Bari had hidden the bomb with her guitar in the rear foot well. The other was that two bags of nails found in the car "matched" those in the bomb. The jury found that the agencies knew both theories to be wrong, leading to illegal warrants and false arrests. The theories were disproved in part by the FBI's own experts, and Doyle, in particular, was shown to be lying. Months after the bombing, FBI agents obtained a second search warrant for Bari's house and found finishing nails that they claimed, in another dramatic press release, had come from the same batch of only "200 to 1,000 nails" found on the bomb. In court, it was revealed that the batch consisted of several million nails and were not a match at all.
WHILE STILL IN THE HOSPITAL, BOTH BARI AND CHERNEY gave the FBI and Oakland police the names of people and a right-wing vigilante group they believed to be behind the death threats. They were never investigated. Seven weeks after the bombing, the Alameda County District Attorney's Office dropped all charges against the pair, citing lack of evidence, and Bari sued.
The FBI, it seems, achieved its purpose long ago: Agents connected Earth First! and Judi Bari with the bombing in the minds of the public. This was later cited as a key to the narrow defeat of Prop. 130. Now, many years later, a jury finds that the FBI violated Bari and Cherney's First Amendment rights by destroying them in the press, and violated the Fourth Amendment by embarking on a course of illegal searches and false arrests. What popular domestic issue will be silenced next -- perhaps in the name of homeland security? Judi Bari's bomber remains at large.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.