Fwd: security threats?
- 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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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