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  • Scott Mathern-Jacobson
    Cover: I m watching you *In the current state of homeland insecurity, even Central Iowa pacifists are being labeled domestic threats * By Carolyn Szczepanski
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 14, 2006
      Cover: I'm watching you

      *In the current state of homeland insecurity, even Central Iowa pacifists
      are being labeled domestic threats *

      By Carolyn Szczepanski

      The sheer irony isn't lost on Elton Davis.

      Here's a guy who grew up dreaming of becoming an aeronautic engineer before
      joining the military at 17 years old. A math-minded problem solver who's
      worked contracts for Lockheed Martin, but now strives to "throw away the
      Cartesian duality" of social disconnection. A humble Des Moines resident who
      calls his actions pitiful, who's so unassuming he doesn't like to use the
      pronoun "I," who quotes parables about sparrows and snowflakes before a
      federal judge.

      But according to the U.S. Department of Defense, Davis is also a "credible
      threat" to national security.

      Of course, Davis doesn't deny he's engaged in a struggle to bring down an
      empire. After years of suspending his disbelief about social realities he
      now sees as grossly unequal, he "disengaged" from the standard capitalist
      system about the same time the United States engaged in Iraq.

      "Before the Iraq war, I had written to all of our elected officials, begging
      them not to do it," he recalls. "I made emergency phone calls before the
      Patriot Act was voted on. I wrote to legislators and elected officials about
      nuclear proliferation when it appeared on the horizon."

      But none of that seemed to have any effect.

      "So then you do a pathetic, prophetic stand..." he says, trailing off with a
      subtle shrug of his shoulders.

      A prophetic stand like that on Aug. 9, 2004, when during an annual
      anti-nuclear protest at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Davis crossed the
      line onto federal property. It was nothing spectacular, nothing flashy or
      dramatic. Just a spiritually inspired, scripted show of opposition to
      nuclear weapons and proof of a personal willingness to accept the
      consequences of his nation's "collective sin." But then, long after Davis
      had spent 90 days in a federal penitentiary for the act, it was revealed
      last month that his action was cited as a "credible" threat to national
      security on a controversial database created by the Department of Defense.

      It's a designation Davis can't help but view as the highest form of irony.
      "When I hinted that the events of 9/11 were due in part to a massive failure
      on the part of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence entities, I had no
      credibility," he notes. "When I suggested that there were no WMDs in Iraq at
      the time of the U.S. led invasion, I had no credibility. When I stated that
      manufacturing nuclear weapons of mass destruction was a violation of duly
      ratified treaties, and constitutes a violation of Article 6 of the U.S.
      Constitution, I again, had no credibility. But when I called attention to
      these issues via a non-violent direct action, I was subsequently labeled a
      'credible threat to national security.'"

      So while in Washington last week, Davis said he would attempt to get an
      answer to a simple question: "I want to know why the hell I'm a credible
      threat to national security, when, in point of fact, I have no credibility,"
      he says with a wry chuckle. In fact, with the nation embroiled in an intense
      debate about the lengths to which the government can go to monitor domestic
      citizens in the name of homeland security, that's a question a host of
      Central Iowa activists would like answered, as well.

      History has taught Frank Cordaro a thing or two. Ever since founder Dorothy
      Day made a stand for women's suffrage at the White House in 1917, Cordaro
      says, Catholic Worker communities like the one in Des Moines have taken for
      granted that they're being monitored by government authorities.

      "I've been in this business for over 30 years, and we in the Des Moines
      Catholic Worker have come to expect that the authorities and powers that be
      would be doing this sort of stuff," he says of surveillance. "We don't have
      a phone call we don't assume is being monitored, an e-mail or an Internet
      exchange we don't presume the government or somebody in the government might
      have an interest in."

      In contrast, if current developments are any indication, activists say the
      federal government has learned little from the past 30 years. To hear Sally
      Frank tell it, Uncle Sam should have learned his lesson after intense
      surveillance of civil rights and anti-war groups in the 1960s and 1970s led
      to a strong slap on the wrist from citizens and Congress alike.

      "At one point J. Edgar Hoover had files on one out of every eight citizens,"
      says Frank, a Drake University law professor and member of the National
      Lawyers Guild. "We learned that the NSA (National Security Agency) was
      tapping into American phone lines; that the Department of Defense had files
      on tons of American citizens; that multiple government agencies had
      infiltrated anti-war groups and civil rights groups to try to sow dissension
      within their ranks. These kinds of excesses can and should horrify Americans
      and caused Congress to pass laws that caused the FISA (Foreign Intelligence
      Surveillance Act) court to be created because you have to have a warrant
      before you wire tap, and caused injunctions to be entered against police
      departments to limit domestic spying of activists. But I think we're moving
      back to the excesses that came out in the past, the same kind of horrors
      that caused Congress and others to say, 'No, the government is not allowed
      to do these kinds of things.'"

      In recent months, the excesses of government surveillance in an already
      homeland security-consumed country have dominated national headlines. The
      battle over the reauthorization of expiring sections of the USA Patriot Act
      - a bill passed in 2001 that gives broad authority to the government to
      investigate suspected terrorist activities, including obtaining search
      warrants for business and library records - set off intense and continuing
      debate about the reach of federal investigators last month. Then, a 400-page
      database harbored by the Department of Defense was revealed, exposing
      military documentation of anti-war groups. Days later, outrage regarding
      domestic surveillance exploded with revelations that President George W.
      Bush had authorized wiretapping of American civilians without court
      approval, raising accusations of potentially criminal behavior from
      politicians on both sides of the aisle.

      And the feverish focus on threats to the homeland hasn't skipped over the
      Hawkeye state. In late 2005, local activists and the American Civil
      Liberties Union of Iowa (ACLU-IA) received documents through a Freedom of
      Information Act request that seem to prove that federal authorities
      misrepresented their handling of a 2003 investigation of a nonviolence
      training at Drake University and subsequent protest at the STARC Armory in
      Johnston. Then, last month, local peace activists discovered that protests
      at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha in 2004 were cited three times as being
      threats to national security and listed on the headline-grabbing DOD
      database. And as Randall Wilson, legal director for the ACLU-IA points out,
      recent revelations about government interest in the effort of Central Iowans
      may be only the tip of an iceberg aimed at chilling political dissent.

      "History is clearly repeating itself," Wilson says. "Every time there's a
      threat to security, we relax the rules and the politicians turn the
      relaxation of rules to their favor in terms of trying to use these tools on
      the American public to stifle political dissent. And this is not just
      cat-and-mouse stuff between local protesters and the government. In the end,
      this has serious ramifications for democracy and whether we're governed by
      people we freely elected or whether they will become unwilling servants of
      those who have gained power through domestic surveillance."

      A slender 19-year-old with short cropped hair and faded olive jacket, Clara
      Terrell was flanked by two men in military fatigues before she got within 50
      yards of the exterior entrance of Offutt Air Force Base.

      Attending the annual "Feast of Holy Innocents" retreat, the Maloy native
      peacefully crossed the line at the U.S. Strategic Command facility in
      December 2004, prompting a terse letter from the base commander that warned,
      "your misconduct... created a substantial threat to the peace and order of
      the base community and cannot be permitted to reoccur." But looking at a
      scene of open grass and armed guards that make the teenager look like barely
      more than a speck on the fenced landscape, father Brian Terrell can't help
      but be somewhat amused.

      "That's her arrest," he says incredulously. "This is the threat."

      But that threat didn't end with the written admonishment from the Stratcom
      commander; Clara Terrell's peaceful act of civil disobedience was labeled
      "suspicious activity" in a database revealed last month that showed the
      Department of Defense was collecting and storing information about dozens of
      anti-war activities around the nation, ranging from demonstrations outside
      military installations to meetings about counter recruitment efforts.
      According to a defense spokesman contacted by Cityview, that list is a
      product of the TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice) reporting system,
      which enters "unfiltered information... garnered by concerned citizens, DOD
      personnel charged with responsibilities for the security of DOD
      installations or other DOD personnel reporting suspicious activities, as
      well as law enforcement, intelligence, security and counterintelligence
      organizations, to provide analysts data on which to estimate possible
      threats. It is, in effect, the place where DOD initially stores dots, which
      if validated, might later be connected before an attack occurs."

      Although the defense spokesman emphasizes that "there is nothing more
      important to the U.S. military than the trust and good will of the American
      people," Brian Terrell - a veteran of the peace movement for more than 30
      years and current organizer for the Catholic Peace Ministry in Des Moines -
      is troubled that information about his daughter's act would be warehoused by
      federal authorities.

      "The thing about America and the Declaration of Independence and
      Constitution is that, unlike some other places where the line between the
      police and army is fudged, here, the two are supposed to be separate,"
      Terrell says. "We're not supposed to be spied on by the Army, and they're
      not supposed to keep lists unless they see a credible threat."

      And the spokesman for the Department of Defense acknowledges that the
      database might not be living up to the letter of the law. Currently under
      "review," he says, DOD is investigating whether "policies are being properly
      applied with respect to any reporting and retention of information about any
      U.S. persons" and aims to "identify any other information that is improperly
      in the database." One question worthy of review, Terrell notes, is why the
      database still included Clara's "suspicious activity" months after it was
      deemed "not credible" and the incident disposition was listed as "closed."

      Another question - which the DOD continues to decline commenting on - is
      what defines a "credible threat?" That's an answer Elton Davis, for one,
      would love to hear. Although he paid with 90 days in a federal penitentiary
      after his line-crossing to protest nuclear armament at Offutt Air Force
      Base, his act of Aug. 9, 2004 - more akin to a church liturgy than a
      threatening protest, activists say - was deemed a "credible threat " by the
      DOD. "It's not surprising that DOD would keep a list of any actions that
      occurred at DOD facilities," Davis says. "But that this action would be
      labeled a credible threat to national security? That came as a shock to me."

      Ames resident Deborah Fink was also shocked at the contents of the database,
      which cited a Quaker community in Lake Worth, Fla., as a "credible threat"
      based on a "counter military recruitment planning meeting." Though thousands
      of miles from Central Iowa, that threat designation hit close to home for
      Fink, as she knew that was the same community her son, Philip, counted
      himself a member.

      Philip Fink, an Ames native and current researcher at Florida Atlantic
      University, says, though he wasn't involved with that specific organizing
      effort, he attends Quaker meetings in Lake Worth regularly and was surprised
      that such a group of citizens would be, not only scrutinized, but cited as a

      "It's kind of an odd thing and very wasteful," he says. "These people were
      certainly not threats to the United States in any way. It seems if they want
      to figure out how to protect people, these are not the kind of people to
      keep tabs on." Though he doesn't feel personally targeted or threatened by
      the surveillance, the prospect of landing on a government list does cross
      his mind. Luckily, "I'd be very difficult to track through there," he says.
      "I ride my bike to meetings so they couldn't get a license plate or

      But, while he remains relatively unperturbed, the knowledge that Uncle Sam
      may be snooping on her son angers Deborah Fink.

      "The whole principle of calling that a threat, that's what's just
      ridiculous, enraging really," she says. "And we cannot assume that they are
      doing this only to protect us from terrorism; how much terror is there in a
      Quaker meeting?"

      When it comes to obtaining files, the powers that be generally have the
      distinct upper hand in keeping the most damning information close to
      authorities' chests, activists say. But, after months of waiting, Wilson
      says recently received documents obtained through a Freedom of Information
      Act (FOIA) request held the scent of deception on the part of federal

      "You never really expect to get a smoking gun," Wilson says of such heavily
      redacted and often selectively fulfilled FOIA requests. "But at least in
      what we got back, the smell of gun powder was there."

      In a case of local surveillance that garnered national media attention, a
      nonviolence training session held at Drake University in November 2003 was
      attended by two undercover Polk County Sheriff's deputies and, at the
      subsequent peaceful anti-war protest at the STARC Armory, the demonstrators
      were met by a host of police in riot gear before they were arrested for
      trespass seemingly in the middle of a public roadway. Far more troubling
      than the law enforcement's overreaction, however, were the grand jury
      subpoenas issued to four Iowa peace activists by an officer tied to the
      FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), and to Drake University, which was
      directed to release the names of all attendees of the nonviolence gathering.

      A wide public outcry at the alleged assault on civil liberties prompted
      Stephen Patrick O'Meara, a U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa,
      to backpedal, stating in a press release on Feb. 9, 2004, that "comments in
      the media suggesting the United States Attorney considers this an
      anti-terrorism matter and that this matter involves the USA Patriot Act are
      not accurate. Likewise, reports that this matter is being investigated by
      the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) are not accurate."

      Though representatives of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District
      of Iowa could not be reached for comment, documents the ACLU-IA got back in
      October, activists say, show in black and white that the previous assurances
      were nothing more than a "cover up." "The FBI and JTTF said that they had no
      case involvement, but what we got back - of course, heavily marked out and
      deleted - clearly shows that a terrorism case was opened with regard to the
      STARC Armory protest," Wilson says.

      For instance, Terrell points out, one document from the JTTF to the FBI
      headquarters in Omaha on Feb., 5, 2004, states "Synopsis: Open a case on
      which 12 individuals were arrested for illegal trespass on U.S. government
      property on Nov. 16, 2003." Two days later, another document shows, the JTTF
      generated a "case update" regarding the protest. And another communication
      between the JTTF and FBI in Omaha in February 2004 directed that the U.S.
      Attorney's office had advised "the investigation on the demonstrators at the
      Camp Dodge Armory is currently closed."

      Adding to the troubling involvement of the JTTF, activists say the claims
      that the investigation was unrelated to "anti-terrorism matters" was also
      questionable. For instance, one document generated by the Omaha FBI
      describes a similar protest at the STARC Armory in March 2003, under the
      title: "Acts of Terrorism - IT Matters." "The fact is that the actions at
      the STARC Armory were investigated as acts of terrorism - that's how they're
      labeled in their memos," Frank says.

      And, as for the claims that the investigation did not involve the USA
      Patriot Act, Terrell can't help but be skeptical. After all, "hundreds of
      pages concerning this matter were released to the ACLU under the Freedom of
      Information Act out of thousands more pages not released, so I cannot but
      wonder how many pages and paragraphs refused and redacted deal with the
      PATRIOT Act," he points out.

      "So it becomes a question of do you want to sue for them?" Frank adds of
      FOIA requests on a half-dozen local activists and several organizations.
      "And once we find out what's been going on, the question then becomes 'were
      any civil liberties violated and whether there's a basis for a lawsuit for
      those violations?' But now we've seen this DOD list, so there's more we need
      to find out about that. And what other lists are out there? What phones are
      being tapped and what e-mails are being watched here in Des Moines and

      Now that they have documents that seem to show a distinct unwillingness by
      authorities to show their hand even as they are playing it, activists say
      they haven't stopping collecting information of their own. As Wilson puts
      it: "Our files are not closed yet."

      Elton Davis has a tongue-in-cheek means of watching out for the little guy:
      he courtesy copies all his e-mails to President@....

      "I've started to get really concerned about the average taxpayer paying for
      all this expensive surveillance equipment and all the labor it takes to
      maintain these lists and surveillance," Davis says, in a wry analysis of the
      lists and FBI documents that bear his name. "So this is my own attempt at
      saving taxpayer expense."

      In fact, his concern about the implications of the federal government
      generating reams of documents about non-violent activity is shared by many,
      who say the monitoring of peace activists hijacks public resources that
      could be more effectively used to serve public safety. As activists in the
      local Quaker and Catholic Worker communities emphasize, their actions are,
      in fact, the very antithesis of a homeland security threat. Instead of
      conspiring to cause destruction, their actions are rooted in principles of
      nonviolence. And, with an equally fundamental dedication to transparency,
      there's no conspiracy at all because their meetings are always open to
      government authorities.

      "These are not dangerous people," ACLU-IA's Wilson says. "They're Quakers,
      they're involved with the Catholic Peace Ministry, they're people who are
      locally well-known in many cases and clearly not a terror threat. To see
      anti-terror efforts being wasted on surveillance of political dissenters and
      pacifists is alarming, not just from a civil liberties, but a national
      security standpoint."

      So while the two sheriff's deputies posing as Jim and Teri Dawson were
      likely on solid legal ground when they attended the nonviolence training at
      Drake in 2003, Franks says, the real question isn't just abiding by the law,
      but living up to their mandate to "protect and serve."

      "Most judges would say that going on to the base is trespass, so if they're
      planning to commit a crime, police have a reason to be there," she says of
      the nonviolence training. "But it's more a political question. There is a
      real threat of terrorism in this country; do we want to spend police
      resources to watch people who are meeting to make sure they maintain a
      nonviolent stance when they cross the line - maybe kneel and say an 'Our
      Father' - or make sure people don't plant bombs and blow things up? Which is
      a better use of resources?"

      Terrell, for one, can't help but chuckle at some of the laughable use of
      investigators' time and the public's money. For instance, a FOIA-obtained
      document carrying a "Counterterrorism" designation in May 2001, documents a
      Catholic Worker community in Los Angeles, noting that the Catholic Workers
      "advocate peace through love and prayer."

      "And this is May 2001; people were learning to fly planes and not land
      them," Terrell says. "And that's a piece of the danger here. I'm not a na•ve
      person. It's not that I don't think there are threats out there, but these
      guys were obviously undercover, and this is who they were listening to?
      Christian pacifists and granola eaters? One of the things they say post-
      9/11 is that, when we're looking at intelligence, there's so much stuff, so
      much information. Well, it's stuff like this that clogs the machine. They're
      not looking for terrorists when they poke around our meetings and attend our

      In a sense, Terrell says, the government has lost the ability to distinguish
      between his daughter Clara and a car bomb. Either that, activists say, or
      there is a concerted attempt to marginalize those with dissenting opinions,
      by willfully demonizing peaceful organizations and dressing up civil
      disobedience and political demonstrations with ominous diction. A case in
      point, Terrell says, was a leaked FBI Intelligence Bulletin circulated just
      prior to the Drake incident in 2003, outlining the "tactics used during
      protests and demonstrations." Although the document does mention that "most
      protests are peaceful events," it goes on to describe activists' "use of
      training camps to rehearse tactics," and protesters' "use [of] the Internet
      to recruit, raise funds and coordinate their activities."

      "Training camps are what we bomb in Afghanistan," Terrell says, questioning
      the document's tone. "But it's part of the mentality. To say that, 'during
      the course of a demonstration, activists often communicate with one another
      using cell phones and radios,' sounds ominous. But that's what people who
      organize a parade, people who organize a NASCAR rally do."

      Even more indicative of that tendency to spin the facts was an incident at
      that November 2003 protest at STARC Armory, during which Elton Davis asked
      the guards to let him in so he could order the troops home from Iraq. His
      request was met with laughter, Terrell recalls and Davis was still "outside
      the 'military security perimeter' - which at the gate in question is an
      ornamental rail fence that would be easier to step over than to scale."

      "But, over the next months Davis' polite request to be let into Camp Dodge
      morphed so absurdly in the minds of the feds from the simple misdemeanor
      trespass he was arrested for by local police to an 'attempted breach of a
      security fence' to the point where it came to be described as a break-in and
      worse," Terrell notes. In addition to a Department of Justice spokesperson
      noting on a French news program that a National Guard base was "broken into
      and vandalized," Terrell adds, "the false break-in story quickly came to be
      accepted as fact among federal authorities... [including] an e-mail released
      to the ACLU dated Feb. 24, 2004, to recipient unknown, from an Analyst,
      Budget Formulation and Presentation Unit with 'AG (Attorney General) Issue
      Paper- Monitoring of protesters' in the subject line."

      And many argue that such trumped-up attention and monitoring of peace
      advocates could be aimed at stifling the growth of the movement. For veteran
      organizers, government surveillance is old hat, but if protests at Offutt
      Air Force Base are cited three times by the defense department as a threat
      to national security, concerned citizens might think twice before joining
      the Des Moines Catholic Worker for their annual vigils there. Or if
      residents later found out that the attendance list for an anti-war meeting
      they attended was wanted by federal authorities they might steer clear of
      such a group to keep their name from landing on a government list.

      "What if you were a student who just thought, 'This looks interesting,'
      someone who's not an activist but wants to know what's going on," Terrell
      says of the targeted 2003 nonviolence training. "But then you sit in on it
      and find out later the JTTF wants to know your name, wants to know who was
      there. That word gets around, and then if we want to use a room at a local
      church they've got to think, 'Well, what if the JTTF is going to come and
      look at all of our books, names and addresses of all our officers?' That was
      done very successfully in the McCarthy era; once an individual got tainted
      at all, all the doors were shut. They were never prosecuted or charged with
      a crime, the group was never proven to have a connection to the communist
      party or a foreign threat, but those people and organizations were just shut

      And, in addition to the public implications of attempting to broaden a
      movement even as the government seeks to stifle it, activists say the stakes
      are higher for them personally once their names share FBI files with words
      like "terrorism" and "threat to national security."

      "Once you're associated with terrorism, there aren't any rules," Terrell
      says, noting the treatment of those currently suspected of terror related
      activity. "That's scary to me. It sounds melodramatic, but I don't think it
      is necessarily. We're in these documents. My name is in these documents as
      person who perpetrated acts of terrorism."

      When Deborah Fink found out her son was the potential target of federal
      surveillance, her mother's instinct kicked in. When her son was home for
      Christmas, she made sure she talked to him directly about the serious
      implications of Uncle Sam's snooping. But instead of issuing a caution, Fink
      issued a call to action.

      "He was joking about it, saying 'I'm not being subversive enough yet,'" she
      says. "And I want him to continue, because, for him, it's a spur to be more
      vigilant and more politically active. I definitely would not say to step
      back. If anything, it's time to step up."

      So while the erosion of civil liberties is cause for outrage, many activists
      say being labeled a credible threat to national security is also proof that
      their seemingly small efforts are drawing the attention of the highest

      "Such shenanigans should be indication of how eroded the rights of citizens
      are to dissent and how out of bounds the government is in pursuing alleged
      enemies of the state," Cordaro notes. "But that the government finds us a
      credible threat is a feather in the Catholic Worker's hat. Often times, most
      of our efforts are ignored and diminished, so when the source of the evil
      identifies us as a threat, it's kind of a clarion call that we're doing the
      right thing."

      After all, Terrell points out, if the actions at STARC Armory and Offutt Air
      Force Base and the anti-war sentiments they represent were simply out in
      left field, those in power wouldn't be so concerned about making sure they
      know who's in the dugout.

      "We're only considered effective if we're right," Terrell says. "If we're
      just totally off the wall, we can be dismissed so easily. And we've given
      people lots of reasons to dismiss us. People can think we're crazy,
      irresponsible, ineffectual; there's a lot of good reasons to marginalize us.
      But for people to look at us and be scared, that I think speaks more of the
      internal processes of the person or institution that senses a threat. That
      letter to Clara said more about the psychology of the commander than
      anything Clara did."

      Despite his actions' designation as a credible threat to national security,
      Davis says he, too, sees the government's crack-down as proof of citizens'
      collective power. Quick with a literary metaphor, Davis says the current
      climate is not unlike the tale of Don Quixote and the Windmills. And the
      American public is starting to wise up to the deception.

      "To believe that these windmills are the threat of terrorism, the threat of
      a risk to homeland security through the criminal actions of a few people who
      represent the dragons is one thing," he says, "But to walk up to a windmill
      and find out the windmill is only a paper mache fa�ade, that puts us into
      Lewis Carroll territory. We're in the looking glass. We're upside down.

      "And I think that those few fools who are willing to take on the windmills
      might help to shed a light on the truth and help others overcome their
      fear," he adds. "Because it's the-emperor-has-no-clothes effect. If you tell
      the truth in a public manner then you're taking the first step. And I think
      those of us engaged in the struggle have shed enough light on the truth that
      we really are a credible threat; a credible threat to the lies that have
      been the justification for the past six years of this administration's
      policies." CV

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