Environmental and animal rights extremism is on the wane in the U.S., but federal, state and local authorities continue to target groups they label a threat to national security, according to interviews with numerous activists, internal FBI documents and numerous legislative initiatives across the country.
Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad (R) signed a law this month, backed by farm lobbyists, that makes it a crime to pose as an employee or use other methods of misrepresentation to gain access to farming operations to expose animal cruelty. Utah passed a similar bill, also known as an “ag-gag” law, on Wednesday. Last month, activist Victor VanOrden, received the maximum sentence of five years in prison under a separate Iowa law for attempting to free minks from one of the state’s fur farms.
Overall acts that might be defined as eco-terrorism are down. The broad definition has come to include arson, setting mink free at fur farms, campaigns to financially bankrupt animal testing firms and protests in front of the homes of some of those firms’ executives.
Michael Whelan, executive director of Fur Commission USA, estimated that in the 1990s “there were close to 20 attacks per year on our farmers” but since 2003 there have been fewer than two attacks a year on American mink farms.
“Overall we’ve seen a decline in activity, in terms of violent criminal activity,” FBI intelligence analyst Erin Weller said in an interview.
FBI officials say two factors contribute to the reduced threat.
One is the successful prosecutions of several activists. The 15 convictions of members of the Earth Liberation Front in 2007 in particular. The national sweep of radical environmentalists was chronicled in the Oscar-nominated 2011 documentary “If a Tree Falls.” Several ELF members get long prison sentences, Stanislas Meyerhoff got 13 years, and many activists testified against others to get lighter punishments.
“That’s had an impact on the movement as a whole,” Weller said.
The second factor is that environmental and animal rights activists may view a Democratic administration as more sympathetic to their goals and be less inclined to take radical steps.
“Obviously if you think there is going to be support for your position, you’re going to use legal means rather than illegal means,” Weller said.
Despite the decline in activity the level of scrutiny has continued, say several who track state and federal enforcement.
“There’s been very little change under the Obama administration,” said Will Potter, author of the book “Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Movement Under Siege.” After factoring in several state initiatives on top of federal enforcement, Potter said, “The political climate as a whole has gotten a lot worse.”
Ben Kessler, a student at the University of North Texas and an environmental activist, was shocked that his philosophy professor and acquaintances were questioned by an FBI agent about his whereabouts and activities aimed at influencing local gas drilling rules.
“It was scary,” said Kessler, who is a national organizer for the nonviolent environmental group Rising Tide North America. He said the agent approached him this past fall and said that the FBI had received an anonymous complaint and were looking into his opposition to hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” The bureau respected free speech, the agent told him, but was “worried about things being taken to an extreme level.”
According to FBI documents obtained by Ryan Shapiro, an animal rights activist, through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests and other contacts the bureau has mined a Web site, the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, for hints on upcoming activities. They have also coordinated with District police to monitor animal rights protests.
The police chief in Moscow, Idaho, said in an interview that he discussed with FBI agents the repeated protests aimed at blocking the shipment of equipment Exxon Mobil and other firms are using to extract heavy crude in Canada’s oil sands.
The broad definition of domestic terrorism the FBI uses contributes to the number of investigations. According to its 2002-05 terrorism report, “A terrorist incident is a violent act or an act dangerous to human life, in violation of the criminal laws of the United States, or of any state, to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
The FBI will not comment on open investigations. Domestic terrorism section chief Stephen Bucar said extremist groups “like those affiliated with environmental and animal rights have committed numerous criminal acts in the United States resulting in damages costing multimillions of dollars. Operating within our legal authorities, the prevention and detection of these criminal acts prior to their fruition is our objective.”
Shapiro questioned this surveillance. He and four others are suing the federal government on the grounds that the American Enterprise Terrorism Act has a chilling effect on free speech, since they are now intimidated from “documenting conditions on factory farms so consumers can make informed choices about if they want to continue to pay people to abuse animals on their behalf.”
Shapiro helped expose the force-feeding used to produce foie gras in the United States, sparking a ban that will take effect in California in July, and is writing his PhD dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the use of a national security justification to curb animal rights activism.