When the American Civil Liberties Union this week released a new batch
of documents obtained from the FBI verifying that the federal agency has been
monitoring domestic environmental- and animal-rights groups, it was only the latest
evidence of government working on behalf of the anti-environmentalist industry
and property-rights advocates to, as one of those advocates put it in 1992, “destroy
the environmental movement.” It’s an effort that’s been under way since the 1980s,
using various tactics from intimidation to slander. Only recently have the anti-environmentalists
hit upon their most promising idea yet: Linking environmentalism to terrorism.
One of the FBI documents contains a complaint from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals about a speech given by FBI agents at a meatpackers’ convention claiming it is “commonly believed” that PETA funneled money to the Earth Liberation Front; another contains an FBI memo instructing its agents not to use phrases like “it is commonly believed” in that context. Another memo seems to accuse Greenpeace of “Suspicious Activity with a Nexus to International Terrorism,” but nearly everything else in the document has been blacked out.This peculiar new brand of anti-environmentalist propaganda dates back several years, but it got a significant media boost on May 18, 2005, when John Lewis, FBI deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, told the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works about environmentalists working in underground “cells” whose vandalism has caused more than $100 million in property damage since a Vail restaurant went up in flames in 1998. “There is nothing else going on in this country… that is racking up the high number of violent crimes and terrorist actions,” Lewis asserted.A little more insight into Lewis’ comments can be gained by looking closely at who invited him — the chair of that Senate committee, James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who coasted into office more than a decade ago on petroleum, real estate and agribusiness largesse. A year earlier, Inhofe had submitted to Congress a 30-page report on the “incestuous” political operations of groups like the League of Conservation Voters; this time, he asked his fellow legislators to investigate even further: Isn’t it likely that these groups, the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, have been bankrolled by more prominent organizations, many of them enjoying tax-exempt status? “Just like al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization,” Inhofe said, “ELF and ALF cannot accomplish their goals without money, membership and the media.”But before anyone can donate money to an organization, that organization has to in fact exist. When it comes to the ELF, that’s a hard case to make. Inhofe is getting a lot of help making it, though: Since Lewis gave his speech, several reporters, including Ed Bradley of CBS’ 60 Minutes, have come forward to warn us that Earth First!–like radicals, lumped in with the animal-rights activists who spring minks from farms and monkeys from labs, have become the No. 1 domestic terror threat the nation faces today. For context, some journalists have relied on questionable sources such as Ron Arnold, the self-published author of several books on the environmentalist threat, including the 1997 Ecoterror: The Violent Agenda To Save Nature — the World of the Unabomber, a book written just a year before the notorious Vail fire.Arnold is widely known for founding the “Wise Use” movement, which seeks to open all public lands to grazing, drilling and mining. He has been envirobaiting for nearly 20 years. In 1992, he told Nightline that Wise Users “intend to destroy the environmental movement once and for all”; the same year, he declared to Bill Lambrecht of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that, “If people believe that there are endangered species, or, if it matters if there are, then they should put up their own money to save them.”Arnold also runs an organization called the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise with a pro-gun activist named Alan Gottleib who once declared environmentalists “the ultimate bogeyman” in his PR campaign on behalf of Wise Use. Together, they have worked hard to build the case that the thing they’ve dubbed “ecoterror” is sweeping the country. Recently, with newly toned-down rhetoric, Arnold told the Portland Press Herald’s John Richardson, reporting on a graffiti incident at the Plum Creek Timber Co., “You’re a little late [getting hit with ecoterrorism] in Maine.” Arnold will also label incidents ecoterror without so much as an incriminating phone call. In an interview with Fox News, Arnold gave his definition: “The first thing you look out for is, is there some protection-of-nature motive behind it? In other words, if there’s a wild area or a scenic area or something that’s not far from it, that gives you the first clue.”And finally, the campaign to link environmentalism to terrorism has been aided by an ever-shifting cast of self-appointed (and self-aggrandizing) ELF “spokespeople” such as Leslie James Pickering and Craig Rosebraugh — a failed restaurateur in Portland, Oregon, known for driving his SUV four blocks to work — who claim to have had connections to the group (“only anonymous and one-way,” Pickering told me), but in fact seem to use ELF as a brand to get attention for themselves. “I’m not going to fucking argue with you about whether ELF exists,” spat Pickering, who now runs a “community organizing” group called Arissa, with a half-built Web site advertising Pickering’s self-published book on the ELF. “I’m not interested. My politics have changed and I don’t comment. Why don’t you ask the Sierra Club if [the Elf] exists?” When I answer that the Sierra Club has only commented on acts of arson and violence to distance themselves from those acts, Pickering said, “Fuck the Sierra Club,” and hung up.
Last week, six people in three states were arrested in connection with
“ecoterrorist” and animal-rights crimes, some of them on thin shreds of evidence.
Pickering says they’re “all ELF actions,” but the court-appointed lawyer for one
of the suspects, Chelsea Gerlach of Portland, Oregon, said she’s never had anything
to do with the ELF. After reviewing his client’s charges, he remarked that he
was waiting to hear whether she’d also be linked to the disappearance of Jimmy
Hoffa. In August 2003, FBI agents harassed Pomona resident Joshua Connole in connection
with the vandalism of a West Covina Hummer dealership on no evidence at all, and
against Justice Department orders; last month, he was awarded $100,000 in damages.
The man who was later convicted of the crime, William Cottrell, denied any association
with the ELF, although media roundups of “ELF attacks” still include him.
Many incidents tied to the mysterious ELF ultimately unravel to be nothing of
the kind. Law enforcement quickly attributed a Maryland fire last December that
destroyed a housing development near a sensitive wetland to the ELF, but it turned
out to be the work of a disgruntled security guard grieving the loss of one of
his twin sons. Three high schoolers in Virginia, described in news accounts as
“self-identified” ELF members, were recently convicted of conspiring to burn some
cars. Their affiliation with the ELF? One of them read about it on the Web site
— a blatant front for advertising, owned by Andrew Riegle of eMailmachine.net
(“Real People. Real Deals.”) with click-through ads for Viagra and repossessed
cars. No one pretends it has anything to do with any real-life organization —
except Inhofe, who refers to the site in his Senate speeches as evidence that
advertisers contribute to ELF’s activities.
And no wonder: Inhofe has been well served by ELF, as has Arnold, whose Wise Use agenda has long been frustrated by successful court battles and public-relations campaigns run by traditional environmental and animal-rights groups. If acts of property damage in the name of environmentalism and animal rights didn’t exist, they would have been wise to invent them.
The documents the FBI has released so far, most of them heavily edited
accounts of monitoring activities directed at Greenpeace and PETA, may be just
the tip of the surveillance iceberg. “The reason we have the documents on PETA
and Greenpeace is because we asked for them,” says Ben Wizner, an attorney with
the ACLU. “There have also been requests by local environmental groups around
the country. They’re trickling out. And I expect that because of these revelations
there will be more groups that want to see their FBI files,” he said.
You could call the FBI surveillance a colossal waste of public resources, but Wizner thinks it’s worse than that: Also in the documents obtained by the ACLU is a memo about a source planted within Greenpeace informing the agency that recent law-enforcement efforts have already damaged morale.“If people think that if they attend a protest against logging or the war they’ll have their name in a file labeled ‘terrorist,’ that could stifle expression and dissent in this country,” said Wizner. “And that would be tragic.”
When the American Civil Liberties Union this week released a new batch