The Feds expand their assault

December 14, 2010

Nicole Colson looks at the latest developments in the government's attack on antiwar and socialist activists in the Twin Cities and the Chicago area.

THE GOVERNMENT witch-hunt against antiwar, pro-Palestinian and socialist activists that began with FBI raids in late September appears to be ratcheting up again.

Recently, five more political activists in Chicago received subpoenas to testify about their association with groups or individuals that the government appears to suspect of providing "material support" to groups designated by the government as "terrorist" organizations. This brings the total number of those subpoenaed to 19--eight subpoenas are currently active.

In September, a group of activists in the Twin Cities and Chicago area had their homes and offices raided by the FBI, with broad search warrants entitling the government to seize any documentation relating to travel to Colombia, Palestine and Lebanon--as well as material related to finances and recruitment in the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO).

In a show of solidarity, the 14 activists who initially received subpoenas informed the government that they all would refuse to take the stand under the Fifth Amendment. The U.S. Attorney's office, in turn, allowed the term of the grand jury to quietly expire, voiding the subpoenas.

National Lawyers Guild member Jim Fennerty speaks in defense of subpoenaed activists at a December press conference
National Lawyers Guild member Jim Fennerty speaks in defense of subpoenaed activists at a December press conference

However, in late November, three of the original 14 activists--Minneapolis residents Tracy Molm, Anh Pham and Sarah Martin--were re-subpoenaed under a new grand jury term. The three have been offered immunity from prosecution for their testimony--meaning that if they refuse to testify, they face a civil contempt charge and prison for the rest of the term of the grand jury, which is well over a year at this point.

Then, in early December, three more activists--this time, Chicago activists who had not been included in the initial round of subpoenas--were served. According to the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, a defense organization working around the case:

On Friday, December 3, 2010, the FBI targeted three young women who traveled together to Palestine last summer. After the FBI called to question a young Jewish-American woman, Sarah Smith, FBI agents knocked on the door of two young Palestinian-American sisters. One sister was already on the phone with lawyer Jim Fennerty and handed the phone to the FBI, causing the FBI to leave. The FBI agents soon returned with subpoenas to the grand jury targeting antiwar and solidarity activists, dated for January 25, 2011.

Two more Chicago activists were reportedly subpoenaed on December 8.

"They're widening the scope of this investigation," National Lawyers Guild attorney Jim Fennerty explained to WBEZ. "They're trying to squeeze anybody they can. This is an attack about people who do solidarity work around Palestine."

IN A statement read to dozens of supporters at a rally in Chicago on December 6, Sarah Smith--one of the Chicago activists who received a subpoena--described having received a call from an FBI agent, who requested a meeting with her so he could "ask her some questions":

I felt something suspicious about him telling me he wanted to ask me some questions, but he would not tell me what these questions were. So I said that I had to consult a lawyer and check my schedule, and that I would get back to him. I reiterated that it would be easier for me to meet him if I knew why an FBI agent wanted to sit down with me. He then said that it had to do with the trip I took this summer. He then emphasized, "I think you know which one I'm talking about."

The trip I took last summer was to Israel and Palestine. I am Jewish and wanted to see firsthand what life is like for Israelis and Palestinians. If I went on the standard tour to Israel, I would not be shown how Palestinians live. So I went on a tour that showed me both worlds--Israel and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank. I went with two Palestinian-American friends. You would think Jews and Palestinians going together to visit Israel and Palestine is something the U.S. government would encourage. Instead, we are now being ordered by the FBI to go before a grand jury for going on that trip.

The U.S. government says it supports peace between Israel and Palestine. It says it supports separate Israeli and Palestinian states. So why does the FBI investigate us because we went to see the Palestinian land? Top U.S. government leaders meet with Palestinian leaders, so why does the FBI investigate us because we talked to average Palestinians on the street? I went there so I could make up my own mind and talk about what I saw. It seems to me our government wants to hide what Israel is doing to Palestinians.

As Smith suggests, a trip to the Middle East is hardly a criminal act. But as Michael Deutsch, a lawyer with the People's Law Office in Chicago, has noted, the subpoenas point to a disturbing expansion of "anti-terrorism" laws under the Obama Justice Department.

In a Supreme Court case in June, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the court found in favor of the Justice Department that certain types of speech--even if they do not advocate or lead to violence--can be considered "material support" for terrorism. Writing in, Deutsch noted:

The court distinguishes what it refers to as "independent advocacy," which it finds is not prohibited by the statute, from "advocacy performed in coordination with, or at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization," which is, for the first time, found to be a crime under the statute. The exact line demarcating where independent advocacy becomes impermissible coordination is left open and vague.

Seizing on this overbroad definition of "material support," the U.S. government is now moving in on political groups and activists who are clearly exercising fundamental First Amendment rights by vocally opposing the government's branding of foreign liberation movements as terrorist and supporting their struggles against U.S.-backed repressive regimes and illegal occupations.

In the context of the government outrage over the WikiLeaks release of secret documents, the Feds' attack is only likely to grow.

In the coming weeks and months, as these activists face dates to appear before the grand jury, it will be important for the entire left and everyone who cares about free speech to support them.

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