A year ago yesterday, I got the dreaded house call from the FBI. I was at home working when two agents rang my buzzer and asked to speak with me.
I had been expecting such a visit; on 24 September 2010 the FBI raided the homes of prominent anti-war and international solidarity organizers I have worked with over the years in Chicago, as well as the homes of activists in the Twin Cities and the office of the Anti War Committee there. In the weeks that followed, more Palestine solidarity organizers and Palestinian Americans in Chicago were delivered subpoenas to appear before a federal grand jury in Chicago as part of an investigation into violations of the laws banning material support for foreign terrorist organizations.
I declined to speak with the two agents who visited me; they then gave me a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury on 25 January 2011. I spent last Christmas and New Year convinced that I would soon be in federal prison for civil contempt of court. Even though it meant we risked being jailed, all 23 of us who have been subpoenaed as part of this grand jury fishing expedition have refused to testify. We have asserted that our first amendment rights guaranteed by the US Constitution, protecting free speech and freedom of association, are being trampled on.
A first amendment issue
The grand jury — essentially a secret court in which you’re not allowed to have a lawyer, and there is not even a judge presiding over the proceedings — has been long abused as a tool of inquisition into domestic political movements. Indeed, no specific crime has been identified related to our case.
The FBI’s operations manual for the September raids, discovered last April to have been accidentally left amongst a raided activist’s files, make it clear that they wanted to question activists about associational information — who activists know and work with in the US, Colombia and Palestine, and how activists organize and what they believe. They wanted people to name everyone they know who has ever traveled to the Middle East or South America.
It is also obvious the FBI put up the LA County Sheriff to raid the home of veteran Chicano liberation activist Carlos Montes last May; he faces trumped-up technical firearms violation charges and serious prison time. The FBI was on hand during the raid to question Montes about his political associations (an organizer of the 2008 Republican National Convention protests, he was named in the search warrant used to raid the Anti War Committee office) and took material from his home related to his long history of political organizing. They even took a kuffiyeh — the traditional checkered Palestinian scarf — only one example of many demonstrating how federal agents so arbitrarily confiscated property from activists’ homes.
And while the threat of indictments looms, I am not spending Christmas and new year’s in federal prison for civil contempt of court. This is, I believe, thanks to the vocal protest that countless people around the US and around the world have made in support of the 24 of us and in support of civil liberties. This is a huge victory. But at the same time, civil liberties and constitutional protections have further eroded even in the last year. More protest must be shown before the situation gets even worse.
A bad time for civil liberties
Even The New York Times has excoriated the Obama administration over its civil liberties record after its justice department went even further than Bush’s to expand the FBI’s powers to investigate US citizens, “even when there is no firm basis for suspecting any wrongdoing.” In an editorial entitled “Backward at the FBI,” the Times takes the FBI’s new operations manual to task, as revised guidelines “will give agents significant new powers to search law enforcement and private databases, go through household trash or deploy surveillance teams, with even fewer checks against abuse.”
The Times adds:
They also expand the special rules covering “undisclosed participation” in an organization by an FBI agent or informant. The current rules are not public, and, as things stand they still won’t be. But we do know the changes allow an agent or informant to surreptitiously attend up to five meetings of a group before the rules for undisclosed participation — whatever they are — kick in.
The FBI’s recent history includes the abuse of national security letters to gather information about law-abiding citizens without court orders, and inappropriate investigations of antiwar and environmental activists. That is hardly a foundation for further loosening the rules for conducting investigations or watering down internal record-keeping and oversight.
After that editorial was published in June, things only got worse. The United States government sanctioned and carried out the assassination of one of its citizens on foreign soil despite the fact that he posed no immediate danger to public safety. Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, stated after the Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a US drone in Yemen:
The targeted assassination program that started under President Bush and expanded under the Obama Administration essentially grants the executive the power to kill any US citizen deemed a threat, without any judicial oversight, or any of the rights afforded by our Constitution. If we allow such gross overreaches of power to continue, we are setting the stage for increasing erosions of civil liberties and the rule of law.
Other stains on civil liberties this year included the persecution and conviction of the the Irvine 11 — a group of students (all of the Muslim, all of them young men) who were subjected to a criminal trial for briefly and nonviolently disrupting the speech of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.
We unequivocally condemn these charges, which unfairly single out and criminalize Muslim students who chose to exercise their First Amendment right to speak out against Israel’s human rights abuses. Had the speaker not been Israeli, had the issue not been Palestine, had the students not been Muslim, these charges never would have been pursued. Rather, these charges reflect a climate of Islamophobia and an irrational exceptionalism for Israel when it comes to free speech. The charges chill the free exchange of ideas and students’ right to protest at universities nationwide.
Guantanamo comes to the US
But perhaps the scariest development in the war on civil liberties this year is the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2012, which if enacted would allow the indefinite detention of US citizens without trial, not unlike Israel’s use of administrative detention. Indeed, as Human Rights Watch summarizes, “In addition to codifying indefinite detention without charge in US law, the bill would require that the military, rather than federal, state, or local law enforcement, handle certain terrorism cases.”
The bill has been already passed by Congress, and now Obama has dropped his threats to veto the bill. Constitutional law attorney Glenn Greenwald described the potential ramifications of the legislation on Democracy Now!:
it will be the first time that the United States Congress has codified the power of indefinite detention into the law since the McCarthy era of the 1950s. The 1950 Congress passed a bill saying that communists and subversives could be imprisoned without a trial, without full due process, based on the allegation that they presented a national threat, an emergency, a threat to the national security of the United States. President Truman, knowing that the bill would—the veto would be overridden, nonetheless vetoed it and said that it made a mockery of the Bill of Rights. That law was repealed in 1971 with the Non-Detention Act, that said you cannot hold people in prison without charging them with a crime. The war on terror has eroded that principle, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, but Congress is now, with the Democrats in control of the Senate and a Democratic president, is about to enact into law the first bill that will say that the military and the United States government do have this power. It’s muddled whether it applies to US citizens on U.S. soil, but it’s clearly indefinite detention, and there’s a very strong case to make that it includes US citizens, as well, which, as we know, the Obama administration already claims anyway, and that’s what makes it so dangerous.
Not only is the Obama administration not closing Guantanamo, but it is paving the way for more Guantanamo-style indefinite detention of US citizens in a military court system.
Of course, there are already so-called “litte Guantanamos” around the US — “Communications Management Units,” or secret prisons populated almost exclusively with Arab and Muslim detainees so as to segregate them from the general prison population.
Following the dismissing of an appeal for the Holy Land Foundation Case, Noor Elashi described on Counterpunch last week how her father — one of five men persecuted and convicted in the US because of the their humanitarian work in support of Palestinians living under US-funded Israeli occupation — has ended up in one of these facilities, and how his “significantly diminished phone calls and visitations are scheduled in advance and live-monitored from Washington DC.”
Will this become the bleak reality for not just Palestinian political prisoners in the US, but also those who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people? It’s a serious question as the US government moves to further criminalize solidarity with the Palestinian people — as they have criminalized almost all of Palestinian society itself by placing all the major Palestinian political parties (except that which collaborates with the US and Israel) on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list.
The US State Department has threatened more than once to use the material support laws against organizers of the US Boat to Gaza. And if passed, a bill introduced in Congress in October would require the State Department to investigate US Boat to Gaza organizers for “terrorist” ties, as Ali Abunimah reported last month.
Who’s a “domestic terrorist”?
The proposed legislation to allow the US military to indefinitely detain without trial “domestic terrorism” suspects who are US citizens is especially scary considering that political activists are increasingly being treated as terrorists — whether it be animal welfare activists investigating factory farms or activists who organized in protest of the 2008 Republican National Convention. And now the Chicago Police Department is creating a counterterrorism unit for the May 2012 NATO and G8 summits in Chicago, at the same time that the city refuses to meet with or issue protest permits to antiwar activists mobilizing large demonstrations against the meetings.
Political repression in the US
Prosecuting Palestine solidarity activists for support of terrorism and going after environmentalists and animal rights organizers is not about protecting public safety. It’s about crushing dissent.
The laws banning material support to foreign terrorist organizations has been expanded so broadly in recent years that the US government defines as “material support” immaterial things like political speech, and travel to places like Colombia and Palestine are now grounds for a judge to approve a search warrant on someone’s home — things thought to be protected by the first amendment.
And Glenn Greenwald, the aforementioned constitutional law attorney, had this to say about the use of para-militarized forces to crush Occupy Wall Street protests around the US:
A country cannot radically reduce quality-of-life expectations, devote itself to the interests of its super-rich, and all but eliminate its middle class without triggering sustained citizen fury.
The reason the U.S. has para-militarized its police forces is precisely to control this type of domestic unrest, and it’s simply impossible to imagine its not being deployed in full against a growing protest movement aimed at grossly and corruptly unequal resource distribution. As Madeleine Albright said when arguing for U.S. military intervention in the Balkans: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” That’s obviously how governors, big-city Mayors and Police Chiefs feel about the stockpiles of assault rifles, SWAT gear, hi-tech helicopters, and the coming-soon drone technology lavished on them in the wake of the post/9-11 Security State explosion, to say nothing of the enormous federal law enforcement apparatus that, more than anything else, resembles a standing army which is increasingly directed inward.
Most of this militarization has been justified by invoking Scary Foreign Threats — primarily the Terrorist — but its prime purpose is domestic. As civil libertarians endlessly point out, the primary reason to oppose new expansions of government power is because it always — always — vastly expands beyond its original realm.
Reasons to be hopeful
It’s easy to get depressed about the increasingly repressive conditions in the US. But there are reasons to be hopeful.
I’m inspired and humbled by the courage shown by campus solidarity activists in the wake of the Irvine 11 convictions. Students are showing that they have not been intimidated into silence and are continuing to challenge Israeli government spokespersons and their propagandists.
The potential for true change was made brilliantly clear this year when huge numbers of people come out into the streets for a common goal — whether it be protecting workers’ rights in Wisconsin, calling for the downfall of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt or for economic justice on Wall Street. Or when young Palestinians born refugees in Syria and Lebanon attempted to march back to their homeland, unafraid of Israel’s landmines and machine guns.
Because of collective action’s power to change, this is precisely why it is being so severely repressed in the US right now. We must stay strong, keep our chins up and keep fighting for a better future.