5. The Criminalization of Travel by the FBI
At least 23 antiwar, labor and international solidarity activists have been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in Chicago. Several of the activists from Chicago, the Twin Cities in Minnesota and other areas have had their homes raided by the FBI, with documents, cell phones, storage disks, computers and children’s artwork seized.
The FBI alleges the activists have provided “material support for terrorism.” In the past months, it has been discovered the FBI used an informant named Karen Sullivan to spy on an antiwar organization for months as it made plans for the 2008 Republican National Convention. The FBI also flubbed the investigation when an agent left documents in the home of one of the subpoenaed activists.
A troubling aspect of the investigation is how it effectively criminalizes outspoken citizens who travel to other countries to meet groups that may have beliefs or agendas that are in conflict with U.S. foreign policy. For example, Sarah Smith, a Jewish-American woman and avid traveler who lives in Chicago, received a call from the FBI on December 3, 2010. The agent, Robert Parker, asked Smith to meet with him and answer some questions.
Smith asked what questions the agent had, and he said he was not at liberty to discuss the questions. This made Smith think she needed a lawyer. The agent told Smith that it was not necessary to have a lawyer because she was not in trouble. He claimed he had some routine questions about a trip and said, “I think you know which trip I’m talking about.” Realizing Parker wanted to talk to her about the trip she took to Israel and Palestine in August, just months ago, she reached out to a lawyer with the National Lawyers Guild.
“We went on an educational trip in which we met with NGOs, teachers, nonviolent protesters,” explains Smith. “We didn’t meet with anyone who is on any terrorist list. We didn’t give money to anyone that is on a terrorist list. We wanted to see what it was like for ourselves, to live in Israel with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.”
Suppressing the right of American groups to travel is not new to U.S. government policy. In 1992, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) mounted a case on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Geo-Vista Global Experiences and Veterans for Peace asserting regulations on group travel to Vietnam and Cambodia were “making it impossible to organize academic study groups, to travel with study groups, to travel with colleagues to assess humanitarian aid and to engage in group fact-finding trips.”
Secretary of State James Baker eventually lifted the regulations, making it permissible for groups to travel to the two countries.
Tom Burke is another traveler alleged to have provided “material support to terror.” Burke was at home with his wife and daughter on Sept. 24, 2010, and began to receive phone calls from people in Chicago and Minneapolis informing them the FBI had raided their homes. Burke thought the FBI might be coming to raid his house. He decided his daughter needed to get to kindergarten before the FBI entered his home. He left with his daughter.
Burke thought he needed to write a press release, so he took his computer and got in his car to go find a Web cafe. On the way, he noticed that his car was being followed. He called his wife, and they agreed he should drive to the parking garage at her work. As Burke reached the parking garage, the car that had been following him sped off. An SUV sped onto the road right behind him and followed him into the garage. Burke was served with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury. His wife was later served with a subpoena, too.
“We’ve been doing solidarity work with people in other countries who get killed for doing what they do,” Burke explains. “When I went to Colombia in 2003 with a labor union delegation, at that time three Colombian trade unionists were being killed every single week. And that was the scariest week of my life.” Burke was with the human-rights director of the oil-workers union. All week, he had to have armed security and know who was with the group and whether they were in a safe place.
Months into targeting the activists, there is no evidence that any of these activists provided “material support for terrorism.” Only subpoenas to appear before a grand jury have been issued. There have been no charges.
Reminiscent of how animal-rights and environmental activists have been targeted in recent years, the FBI is going after the activists, wrecking their lives and intimidating Americans who believe in their right to dissent. The FBI is pressing on, widening its investigation despite a growing backlash against the investigation. And some of the activists fear indictments from the investigation may be coming soon.
Kevin Gosztola is a blogger for FireDogLake.com who writes on WikiLeaks, the war on whistleblowing, and civil liberties. This article appeared on Alternet.org on June 30, 2011 .