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Is it the Green Scare, eco-terrorism or none of the above?

Byline: Bill Bishop The Register-Guard

The war of rhetoric is heating up along with "Operation Backfire," the federal indictment of 14 suspects facing trial in Eugene for widespread incidents of arson and sabotage by radical environ- mentalists.

Is it "eco-terrorism," identified by the FBI as the nation's No. 1 domestic terrorism threat?

Is it the "Green Scare," tagged by civil rights groups as a repeat of the government's broad-brush tactic of the 1950s anti-communist "Red Scare" now being applied to paint environmental activists as violent schemers?

In the headquarters of mainstream, longtime environmental groups, it is both.

"The Sierra Club strongly condemns all acts of violence in the name of the environment. These people are not environmentalists. They are arsonists," Sierra Club national spokesman Eric Antebi says. "There is no question that the Bush administration and extremists in Congress have tried to paint environmentalists, as a whole, as extremists. They're very savvy. They try to exploit the actions of the people on the fringe to redefine the majority of the movement."

The Oregon Natural Resources Council - which offered a $5,000 reward for information about the arson that destroyed the Oakridge Ranger Station in 1996, one of the crimes charged to Backfire defendants - is frustrated that the acts of a "very small minority" reflect on the majority of Americans who care about environmental issues, ONRC wildlands advocate Steve Pedery says.

"When they do these things, the folks on the other side of this debate latch onto them and try to publicize it as much as they can," he says.

As mainstream environmental groups are drawing clear distinctions between themselves and the radical fringe, civil rights organizations are decrying what they see as government efforts to impede the rights of dissenters in the name of terrorism enforcement, a charge federal law officers dispute.

Civil rights groups are fighting back by sounding their alarm over how far the government may push the "Green Scare" to erode privacy and free speech rights of law-abiding individuals and legitimate environmental and peace groups.

But federal investigators say activists are overreacting in the wake of Operation Backfire.

"It is absolutely not correct that environmental groups are the subject of investigation because they oppose administration policy," says Bob Jordan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Portland who reviews cases being considered for investigation by the Joint Terrorism Task Force that conducted Operation Backfire.

Jordan, a lawyer with 33 years of FBI experience, is the bureau's former head of civil rights enforcement internationally - a branch that focused on hate crimes against minorities, including Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He says FBI agents get quarterly legal training on how to protect constitutional rights while enforcing laws.

After the attacks, the FBI was criticized for failing to detect, prevent and deter terrorists. Congress and the American public mandated that the bureau make terrorism - both domestic and international terrorism - its top priority, he says.

Jordan notes that the 65-count indictment in Operation Backfire does not invoke federal terrorism statutes. Instead, it charges conspiracy and arson.

Jordan says the FBI weighs the impact of criminal activity on the community before undertaking an investigation, and routinely rejects requests from local law enforcement agencies to get involved in acts of civil disobedience that carry elements of protest protected by the First Amendment.

The bureau, for example, does not investigate people for taking part in tree-sitting protests on federal forest land, he says. "We don't get involved in those. We have a very surgical approach to those decisions.'

Defendants caught in Operation Backfire created a secret conspiracy but also participated in legitimate activist groups, Jordan notes. Those groups are not automatically subject to investigation as a result, he says.

"If you, yourself, are not committing criminal acts, you have nothing to fear from us," Jordan says. "We don't have the manpower, the time or the interest in investigating legitimate activity."

Activists, nevertheless, are raising the question, noting that former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft loosened investigation guidelines to allow agents to investigate legitimate groups without first having reason to suspect criminal activity.

"We believe it is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and freedom of association," says Alejandro Queral, executive director of the Portland-based Northwest Constitutional Rights Center, a group formed with money from payments by the city of Portland over lawsuits charging police brutality against anti-war demonstrators in 2002 and 2003.

The group is sponsoring panels of lawyers and activists to discuss the impact of politically motivated property crimes being defined as "domestic terrorism," the government's practice of overlooking crimes against the environment while prosecuting crimes by activists, and the effect of the "terrorist" label on individual activists.

"Why are we labeling the destruction of property as `terrorism'? There may be a legitimate reason to do so," Queral says. "The question is, how far is the government going to take this label? That is where the chilling effect is going to be. We have a long history of civil disobedience in this country. Practically any action with a political message ... can lead to a label of terrorism."

Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania released evidence that the FBI investigated gatherings of the Thomas Merton Center for Peace & Justice in Pittsburgh because the organization opposes the war in Iraq. The ACLU believes that it is the first proof the FBI has targeted a group based solely on its political views rather than evidence of criminal activity, according to the ACLU Web site.

A number of Oregon groups have sought similar documents under the Freedom of Information Act to learn whether they have been targets for investigation, Oregon ACLU Director Dave Fidanque says.

Their skepticism also is fueled by recent retaliation by federal agencies for apparent political reasons.

Greenpeace International, for example, was audited by the IRS after a complaint was filed by Public Interest Watch, a group funded by ExxonMobil, which is a frequent target for Greenpeace protest, says Tom Wetterer, general counsel for Greenpeace International. The audit found no wrongdoing.

"One of the things that really has changed recently - certainly under this administration and especially after 9/11 - is that it's not going against individual activists, it's going against organizations," Wetterer says. He cites a recent case in Miami in which Greenpeace activists were prosecuted individually and, a year later, charges were filed against Greenpeace over the same incident. A judge acquitted the group after the prosecution presented its case.

"We're not backing down," Wetterer says. "There are a lot of committed activists out there willing to stand up to the injustices of government and industry. But these are tough times, definitely."

CAPTION(S):

An investigator with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms walks through the Romania Truck Center lot in Eugene after an arson in 2001 destroyed 35 sport utility vehicles and caused $1 million in damage. Paul Carter / The Register-Guard The Associated Press The arson that destroyed the Oakridge Ranger Station in 1996 has been blamed on the defendants included in "Operation Backfire."
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Title Annotation:Environment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 15, 2006
Words:1177
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