How The Pursuit Of Animal Liberation Activists Became Among The FBI’s ‘Highest Domestic Terrorism Priorities’
On January 16, 2006, two federal agents pulled off of Oregon’s Route 66 and onto a dirt road in the Southern Cascades, about nineteen miles northeast of downtown Ashland. They didn’t get far. There was a blizzard, and the road was buried in snow. The agents were forced to stop just a couple miles short of their destination.
On most winter mornings, the road that forced the agents’ retreat was plowed by Jonathan Paul, a tall, broad-shouldered, 39 year-old volunteer firefighter with a shaved head and a soul patch. Paul had gotten off to a late start that day; it was nearly time for lunch. While the FBI agents sat in their stalled vehicle, Paul climbed into his snow plow, which he kept parked beside his fire truck in the garage next to the solar-powered house where he lived with his wife and three dogs. At the intersection with Route 66, the agents watched as Paul pulled up the road and drove past them. They turned their car around and followed him onto the mountain highway.
Five minutes later, Paul pulled into the parking lot of the Green Springs Inn to order one of the few vegan items on the menu of the only restaurant in the area. The FBI vehicle pulled in behind him, and the agents followed Paul inside. One of them flashed his badge, and Paul knew at once that a nearly nine year-old crime had finally and inevitably caught up to him.
On July 21, 1997, the Cavel West Horse Rendering Plant, in Redmond, Oregon, was burned to the ground. It was never rebuilt. While in operation, the Belgian-owned slaughterhouse killed and dismembered as many as 500 horses per week, according to Paul, many of them formerly wild animals rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management and adopted out to private individuals who then sold them to the plant to be butchered. The meat was packaged and shipped to Europe and Japan for human consumption.
For over a decade, neighbors had petitioned and protested in a seemingly endless campaign to shut the plant down. In addition to the ethical concerns, Redmond locals complained about the stench, the constant screams of the horses, and the blood overflowing the local sewage system, backing up into neighbors’ bathtubs and knocking out the city’s water treatment plant.
An incendiary device consisting of a mixture of glycerin soap and diesel fuel nicknamed “vegan jello” accomplished what a decade of legal means had failed to achieve. Paul, along with an activist he had recruited named Jennifer Kolar, had mixed the fuel. The other three participants in the arson were Kevin Tubbs, a Nebraskan transplant who had moved to Eugene to work for the Earth First! Journal, Joseph Dibee, a software engineer at Microsoft, and Jacob Ferguson, who later turned into an FBI informant. Tubbs served as driver and lookout. Ferguson carried the fuel, and Dibbee planted the devices. After the ignition timers were set, the perpetrators fled the scene in Tubbs’ van. They stopped at a pre-determined location to dispose of their clothes, gloves and masks and destroy them with muriatic acid. A few days later, the “Animal Liberation Front – Equine and Zebra Liberation Network” faxed a communiqué to Craig Rosebraugh, ALF spokesperson, detailing the steps taken in the action and claiming responsibility for it.
Paul was prepared for his arrest; he had been expecting it. Over the last four years, the government had conducted a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional investigation into a string of arsons and other property crimes by radical animal rights and environmental activists with the Animal Liberation Front and its sister organization, the Earth Liberation Front. The investigation was called “Operation Backfire.” The month before, based on information provided by Ferguson, who had worn a wire and recorded conversations with his former colleagues, the FBI had arrested Tubbs, along with six other underground activists (Ferguson had once tried to record Paul implicating himself as well, but Paul had refused to discuss his past with him). Paul had known and worked alongside some of the arrestees; others were strangers.
Paul could not have known it, but his fellow activists’ long-standing pledges to refuse to assist prosecutors in the event of arrest broke down almost immediately. All of the defendants except for two — William Rodgers and Daniel McGowan — had hastily signed plea bargains and agreed to cooperate with the investigation (McGowan’s case was the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary, “If a Tree Falls”). Rodgers was so shaken by the government’s success in turning his co-defendants that he committed suicide in his cell.
Information provided by the cooperating defendants led to the arrests of Paul and six other activists. Three of them chose to cooperate with the FBI, while four, including Paul, refused. (Three more suspects remain fugitives, Dibbee among them.)
Four days after his arrest, the Department of Justice issued a press release referring to Paul and the other defendants as terrorists. At a press conference announcing the activists’ indictment, FBI Director Robert Mueller, standing alongside Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, cited the pursuit of environmental and animal rights-related criminal perpetrators as among the agency’s “highest domestic terrorism priorities.”
Of the twenty criminal events investigated under Operation Backfire, none had targeted human beings or resulted in the death or injury of a single person. No action by the ELF or the ALF in the United States has, in fact, ever killed or injured anyone. Both groups’ crimes are, by design, restricted to property.
The same cannot be said of anti-abortion extremists, white supremacists and right-wing militias, none of which have been subject to special federal legislation singling them out as terrorists as ALF and ELF activists have. Indeed, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a mundane intelligence assessment in 2009 outlining the threat of terrorism from right wing extremists, conservative outrage forced Secretary Napolitano to withdraw it (just three months earlier, DHS’s release of a similar report detailing cyberterrorism threats from animal rights and environmental activists and anarchists went more or less unnoticed by the media).
Though what the FBI now calls “eco-terrorism” predates September 11, 2001 by at least two decades, since the events of that date, both the laws on the books pertaining to political activism and the implementation of those laws by police and federal investigators have shifted dramatically in the direction of repression. In a time of perpetual national emergency, freewheeling use of the “terrorist” label enabled Congress to pass the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006, a law that substantially broadened the powers of the Justice Department to pursue animal rights activists — including those who engage strictly in First Amendment activities — as terrorists. Likewise, this year, the label helped two state legislatures pass “Ag Gag” laws that criminalize undercover video investigations of animal abuses in the agriculture industry.
On the enforcement side, police and federal investigators have pursued perpetrators of arson, vandalism and even highly charged political speech as terrorists, and applied investigative techniques commensurate to the threat of Al Qaeda sleeper cells to disrupt their networks, including surveillance, infiltration, raids on homes and offices, and the use of grand juries to force innocent people to inform on their friends and colleagues. Currently, two self-described anarchists are in jail in Seattle merely for refusing to provide information on other activists in a grand jury proceeding. Neither is regarded as a suspect in the vandalism under investigation or have been charged with any other crime.
Describing the charges brought against the defendants in Operation Backfire, David Iglesias, the former federal prosecutor for New Mexico who was terminated by Attorney General Gonzales in the 2006 U.S. Attorney firing scandal, told the Eugene Weekly in 2007, “It seems to me what happened here should not fit my traditional definition of what terrorism is.” Iglesias described the terrorism label as “political” and “overreaching.”
In environmental circles, the terrorism charges brought against the Operation Backfire defendants marked the culmination of what became known as “the Green Scare”: the post-9/11 period in which widespread anxiety about a very real threat to American security was marshaled by federal law enforcement and then redirected to discredit a movement. While the legal targets of the dragnet were underground activists who engaged in illicit activity, the political targets, many activists believe, were lawful, mainstream environmental and animal rights groups and the causes they stood for.
The FBI denies this. In a statement provided for this article, a spokeperson wrote, “The FBI does not investigate individuals based on their beliefs or other first amendment protected activity like free speech. It is when the individual exhibits intent to or crosses the line to commit a crime that we have an obligation to act. Working within our legal authorities, the prevention and detection of these criminal acts prior to their fruition is our objective.” (The spokesperson went on to note that domestic terrorism is the agency’s “top investigative priority,” and pointed to “evidence of an ongoing conspiracy by members of the ELF and ALF” that caused “over $40 million in economic damages.”)
Activists who have been in the FBI’s sights tend to disagree. “The FBI’s pursuit of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, including Jonathan Paul, was the largest domestic terrorism investigation in history,” says Will Potter, author of Green Is The New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege. Potter, who has himself been questioned by the FBI in the past for legal protest activity, discerns in the terrorism label a campaign of pressure by law enforcement agencies, at the behest of animal enterprise and resource extraction industries, upon licit groups to curtail their Constitutionally protected advocacy activity. Potter sees a continuity of this pressure campaign in both the government’s recent aggressive prosecution of climate activist Tim DeChristopher and in the passage of laws this year in Utah and Iowa criminalizing undercover investigations of animal abuse on factory farms. “Now, the same corporate and political interests who were calling for a crackdown on the ELF are calling for a crackdown on undercover investigators and on people like Tim DeChristopher who is in prison for non-violent civil disobedience,” Potter continues. “This is how political repression operates. It always begins on the fringes and, if allowed, creeps steadily towards all forms of dissent.”
Cavel West was Paul’s last arson, but it was neither his first nor his last act of physical intervention in defense of animals. Paul undertook his first animal liberation action when he was eight years old. Paul’s father, a manager at Morgan Stanley, took his son to Africa, where for the first time in his life, Paul viewed cheetahs in the wild. When he returned home to Western Massachusetts, he visited the zoo and was traumatized by the sight of cheetahs in captivity, pacing around in their cages. When he got to school, he went around and set off as many mousetraps as he could find.
Despite his childhood ethical revelation, until his early adolescence, Paul continued to hunt for sport. One day, when he was a freshman in high school, Paul and his friends were out shooting birds. Paul hit one in the wing, and it fell to the ground on its back. It was suffering, and Paul was able to connect to that suffering in a way that was new to him. It was something of an epiphany. He picked up a rock and smashed the injured bird, putting it out of its misery. He never hunted again.
Paul soon gave up eating meat, then all animal products. In his early twenties, he moved to California. “A lot of the people that I was hanging around with were very smart people who were very educated,” Paul says. “And I listened and learned from them, and I started understanding what was really going on, and understanding more about ecosystems and how important things were, and this and that. And as I started to understand that, I started putting it all together like a puzzle. I was able to complete the puzzle and I saw this very dark world that to me was very disturbing.”
He undertook his first major animal liberation action in 1986 at the University of Oregon, where, according to Paul, researchers were conducting experiments on perception that included taking pregnant cats, opening them up, extracting their fetuses, sewing the eyes of the fetuses shut, and putting them back into their mothers so they would be born blind. Then lab technicians would conduct tests on the blind kittens. After months of reconnaissance, Paul and some fellow activists broke into the lab, destroyed computers and equipment and released close to 300 animals, including cats, mice and rabbits. They were unable to get the monkeys out because they had not secured new homes for them; all they could do was give them bananas and take a sledgehammer to the device used for their vivisection.
Following the University of Oregon raid, Paul’s life became animal liberation. He got a rush out of the action. He quickly became one of the most prolific underground animal rights activists alive. In 1987, he participated in the first ALF arson in the United States, at an animal research laboratory under construction at the University of California at Davis. The next month, he cut a section of a wooden fence at a wild horse corral run by the Bureau of Land Management in California, freeing the captured horses. That same year, he broke into a research facility at Loma Linda University in Southern California, removing dogs and research documents. In 1989, Paul and another activist executed the largest raid in the ALF’s history at the University of Arizona at Tucson, freeing and re-housing about 1,200 animals. In the ’90s, he helped shoot undercover video footage of the brutal killing of minks on fur farms, and derailed shark hunts off the coast of Santa Cruz. The project he made the most enduring commitment to was founding the American version of the Hunt Saboteurs, an organization that had been physically disrupting fox and deer hunts in England since the ’60s and which was a precursor to the original Animal Liberation Front in the United Kingdom. In the U.S., Paul and other activists focused on Big Horn Sheep hunts in the Mojave Desert. They would follow hunters for miles, blaring noisemakers to keep their prey moving and putting out false scents to throw off the dogs. If necessary, they would put their bodies between the rifles and their intended targets. (Forty-four states now have “hunter harassment laws” that criminalize this kind of activity.)
“There’s a despair that we all hold in us,” says Paul. “I think that for myself I can say that somewhere I tend to channel the suffering and the pain and the destruction in me, and it’s a pretty intense experience to always have that in you. I will say that in a lot of ways I prefer to [be] aware and be in touch with my despair [rather] than to be unaware and not in touch with what’s going on. I don’t want to live in bliss, I want to live in reality. And a lot of times the reality of what’s going on is very disturbing and scary. And so the only way I could channel that is to do something about it.”
The type of direct action-style activism that Paul practiced was extraordinary, but in the 1990s it was hardly unique. Throughout the ’80s, Animal Liberation Front cells and other animal rights groups had racked up scores of successful lab break-ins, arsons and rescues, some of them accompanied by major public relations victories. In 1984, ALF activists broke into the University of Pennsylvania’s Head Trauma Research Center, where scientists were conducting experiments on live baboons funded by the National Institutes of Health. The activists stole sixty hours worth of audio and videotapes shot by the vivisectors themselves that showed them laughing and joking as they inflicted brain damage on inadequately anesthetized baboons with a hydraulic device that simulated whiplash, and posing the severely injured primates in front of the camera, Abu Ghraib-style, for fun. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a 26-minute edited film from the footage that received media attention all over the world. The following year, NIH cut off funding for the center and the lab was closed. Soon after, Congress passed new legislation improving standards of oversight and care of laboratory animals.
In the environmental movement, radical activists were adopting equally confrontational tactics in the ’80s and ’90s, most famously under the banner of Earth First!. Begun out of a conscious and explicit rejection of the inevitable compromises of mainstream environmental groups, Earth First! championed the use of direct action and sabotage (nicknamed “monkey wrenching”) to halt environmental destruction at its source. Earth First! activists destroyed logging equipment, established blockades of logging roads into old growth forests, and in 1985, developed the tactic of climbing and physically occupying trees for days, weeks or months on end to protect them from loggers’ chainsaws.
Soon after founding the Hunt Sabs, Paul and other animal liberationists found themselves accompanied on their expeditions by Earth First! activists. Earth First!ers were not all animal rights devotees, and at that time, their political persuasion was, collectively, as libertarian as it was anarchist. The original founders of Earth First! proudly embraced a redneck cultural sensibility, fusing it with a back-to-the-Earth, Mother Gaia spirituality. Many Earth First! ‘eco-warriors’ ate meat, wore leather, and even hunted. But they all opposed big game trophy hunting as a crime against conservation if not against the animals themselves.
Surrounded by environmental radicals, Paul’s perspective on his own activism began to expand, incorporating elements of Earth First!’s biocentric ‘Deep Ecology’ philosophy, which emphasizes the innate interconnectedness of life, into his perspectives on animal exploitation. “There’s always a bigger picture involved with the whole thing,” says Paul. “I always feel that if you’re a person that is going to have the heart to go out and defend an individual animal how can you not have the heart to see the whole picture of what’s really going on in this world? We’re in the sixth mass extinction right now. We’ve got ecosystems collapsing everywhere, species dying out. And animal liberation is tied to that, directly.” As the radical environmental worldview shaped the ideology of Paul and his colleagues, the animal rights crowd began to participate in Earth First! forest defense actions. The two movements were merging.
Like many social movements before it, Earth First!’s uncompromising tactics had earned it a place on the FBI’s list of public enemies. At 5 a.m. on May 30, 1989, following three years of infiltration, armed federal agents stormed the Tucson home of one of Earth First!’s founders, Dave Foreman, and arrested him (seven years later, the FBI’s case against Foreman resulted in a $250 fine). Then, almost exactly a year later, Earth First! organizer (and friend of Paul’s) Judi Bari was crippled for life and nearly killed in a car bomb explosion. Within hours of the blast, the FBI accused Bari and the other passenger, Earth First! activist Darryl Cherney, of harboring the bomb themselves, claiming it was set off accidentally. Agents were at Jonathan Paul’s home in Santa Cruz almost immediately, asking questions. Seven weeks later, the Oakland District Attorney announced that he had insufficient evidence to charge the pair with any crime. Many believe that the bomb was in fact planted by the FBI and the Oakland Police.
The animal rights movement was likewise commanding increased attention from federal investigators. While Paul was busy leading the Hunt Sabs, his friend and former Santa Cruz housemate, Rod Coronado, carried out a string of high-profile ALF arsons, which he dubbed “Operation Biteback,” that targeted the physical infrastructure of the fur industry. Paul didn’t participate in the campaign and wasn’t a suspect in the investigation into it, but in 1993, federal prosecutors hauled him in front of a grand jury in Spokane to compel testimony that might lead to the perpetrator’s capture. Paul refused to cooperate, and was locked up for five months. At the time, it was the longest jail term ever meted out for animal rights activism.
It was around this time that Paul first started hearing the term “eco-terrorism.” Paul attributes its genesis to the Wise Use movement, an anti-environmental grassroots coalition and corporate public relations campaign founded by Ron Arnold, who claims credit for the word’s coinage. The neologism had already gained currency in Washington, D.C. Following the 1987 arson at the University of California at Davis in which Paul acted as driver, for the first time, the FBI labeled a crime carried out by animal rights activists as “domestic terrorism.” The following year, referring to Earth First! activities, Idaho’s Republican Senator James McClure introduced that phrase’s specific sub-variant, “eco-terrorism,” into the Congressional record.
Then, in 1992, in response to the Operation Biteback arsons, Congress took another step in transforming such activists into terrorists by quietly passing the “Animal Enterprise Protection Act.” A gift to the pharmaceutical lobby (principally the National Association for Biomedical Research), the new law carved out special protections for animal-based industries by creating a brand new category of criminal activity, called “animal enterprise terrorism,” with special sentencing enhancements specifically aimed at underground animal rights groups. From now on, rescuing or assisting in the rescue of animals from death or torture at the hands of a profit-seeking venture, or assisting in the destruction of the equipment used to inflict pain or death on those animals, were not merely felonies to federal prosecutors, they were acts in the same legal class as the crimes perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski or Osama bin Laden.
It wasn’t until 1998, however, that the “eco-terrorism” term really gained traction. In October of that year, one year and three months after Paul had helped burn down the Cavel West plant, a massive fire at the Vail ski resort in Colorado resulted in $12 million in damages and prime time news coverage across the country. The arson, whose stated purpose was to halt the resort’s planned expansion into delicate lynx habitat, was carried out in the name of the Earth Liberation Front, an offspring of the Animal Liberation Front that had started in the United Kingdom and had been active in the U.S. for several years. (Years later, the FBI arrested William Rodgers, also known as “Avalon,” for the crime.)
Until Vail, crimes carried out by radical environmental and animal rights groups were a persistent but secondary issue for the FBI. With the Vail fire on the front page of newspapers coast to coast, the FBI’s priorities changed overnight. FBI Director Louis Freeh, who had told a group of animal and resource extraction industry representatives in Europe less than a year earlier that ALF, ELF and Earth First! activities were not even on the agency’s ‘radar screen,’ told the Senate Appropriations Committee in February 1999 that animal rights and environmental activists were now among “the most recognizable single issue terrorists at the present time.”
The FBI’s about-face was a coup for the animal enterprise and resource extraction industries, whose lobbyists had already been pressuring politicians to put Earth First!, ALF and ELF into the same threat category as assassins, airline hijackers, and international mass murderers. Bragging about Freeh’s change of perspective, the Fur Commission USA wrote in its March 1999 newsletter: “Over the last year, the people of the fur trade have been key players with other animal and resource based industries in a concerted effort to push eco and animal rights terrorism up the government’s priority pole. These efforts have resulted in a strong statement of commitment from the FBI.” The government had not yet gone far enough, the newsletter cautioned, “But what a difference a few months can make!”
An even bigger sea change came on September 11, 2001. It took only a few hours after planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon before the animal enterprise and resource extraction industries and their allies in Congress sought to capitalize on the opportunity to shine the spotlight on “eco-terrorists.” On the day of the attacks, Alaska Congressman Don Young speculated that the act of mass murder could be the work of environmental extremists. One day later, Oregon Congressman Greg Walden declared “eco-terrorists” to be a threat “no less heinous than what we saw occur yesterday here in Washington and in New York.”
The gambit failed in the short run. During the months and years that followed 9/11, the Bush administration was too preoccupied with the real threat of the moment, Al Qaeda, to make a top priority of a loose network of arsonists, saboteurs and civil disobeyers focused on the destruction of property and not on the taking of human life. Moreover, in the wake of the attacks, ALF and ELF activity abruptly dwindled to almost nothing, as did most other political protest and dissent in the United States at that time. Out of the twenty separate criminal acts committed by the activists rounded up in Operation Backfire, only one of them took place after 9/11 — an arson at the Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse Corrals in Litchfield, California, one month and four days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. According to the ALF Press Office, crimes by ALF and ELF activists declined by nearly half following September 11th.
Nevertheless, the watchword of the decade was now “terrorism.” The Justice Department had been granted unprecedented new powers by Congress through the passage of the PATRIOT Act. Careers could now be made in federal law enforcement by breaking a case that could credibly be labeled as terrorism while resources for other priorities dried up. In the private sector, demand spiked for executive and director level security personnel to protect companies from shadowy terrorist threats; more than 200 colleges and universities created new homeland security-related degree and certificate programs to fill the new slots. Many more of these newly minted corporate security officers were worried about their domestic political opposition than about Al Qaeda.
With the criminal histories of the ALF and ELF now comfortably ensconced within the rubric of “terrorism” by the Animal Enterprise Protection Act and the declarations of the FBI, the social, legal and political framework for a major government counteroffensive against animal rights and environmental activists was never stronger.
During that time, Paul was in Washington State, working alongside Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepard Conservation Society (and star of “Whale Wars” on Animal Planet), which Watson has described as “the navy of Earth First!”. He helped found Ocean Defense International, an organization dedicated to derailing whale hunts conducted by an indigenous tribe that enjoyed sovereign whaling rights. ODI used the same straightforward approach Paul had employed with the Hunt Sabs on land and that Watson had been perfecting on the water for years: they would pursue the whaling vessels with small coastal boats, and, as the Makah hunters closed in on their prey, they would steer their boats between the whales and the hunters’ high-powered rifles.
It was while working for ODI that Paul met his wife, Tami Drake. On a Saturday in May of 1999, the Coast Guard confiscated ODI’s boats. On Monday morning, the Makah harpooned a grey whale. There was nobody there to disrupt the slaughter. It took 17 minutes for the whale to die, and Drake, a paralegal at the time, watched it happen on the local news. She called in to work and said she wasn’t coming in that day. She tracked down Paul and the ODI crew and volunteered to help with the legal work to get their boats back. Paul was especially persistent in seeking her aid. “Every day he was calling me,” she says. “‘Have you gotten my boat back?’ Maybe he had a premonition that he’d need legal help in the future. But six months later, we were together.”
Drake and Paul became partners in activism as well as in life. They bought a bus, turned it into a mobile whale education center, and drove up and down the West Coast, educating children about marine mammals. They purchased their home together in the Siskiyous. Drake knew the depth of her partner’s commitment to animal rights, and she suspected that he may have engaged in some illegal animal liberations, perhaps breaking into a laboratory or two. Beyond that, Paul did not speak of his underground history, and she tried not to ask.
In 2004, seven separate investigations into an assortment of underground actions by multiple federal, state and local law enforcement agencies were merged into Operation Backfire. The investigation got its major break when a roommate of Jacob Ferguson filed charges with the Eugene Police, accusing him of stealing her truck. She later found the truck parked down the street, but by then, investigators were linking Ferguson to an SUV arson. Ferguson had become addicted to heroin and had a young son. The FBI soon ensnared him, and played on his fears of being locked up and separated from his son just as he had been separated from his imprisoned father. Ferguson agreed to wear a wire, then systematically sought out his accomplices and attempted to record each of them admitting their roles in crimes past.
The FBI came to Paul’s home with a Grand Jury subpoena on December 7, 2005. Drake took her husband out into the woods and grabbed him by the collar. She asked him if she needed to be afraid that the FBI was going to return, kick in their door and shoot their dogs. He told her no, they were just harassing him. A few weeks later, Drake flew to Seattle to visit her daughter. While she was there, she received a phone call and learned that her husband had been arrested. “I dropped to my knees,” Drake says. “I thought, whatever he’s arrested for, he didn’t do it. We got him bonded out in nine days. I asked him quietly, ‘Did you do this?’ And he got this sheepish grin on his face and he said, ‘Do you really want to know?'”
As with the other defendants, prosecutors tried to turn Paul immediately. He didn’t even entertain the idea, and nor did those closest to him. Drake told him she would stand by him throughout, as long as he didn’t snitch. His mother told him the same thing.
Federal prosecutors tried Paul on charges of arson and conspiracy, and sought sentencing enhancements for terrorism. Paul lucked out. In the midst of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping scandal, the prosecutors were on shifting and precarious political ground. Attorneys for the defendants submitted a discovery motion demanding that the government turn over any and all evidence collected through warrantless wiretaps. The government responded by agreeing to a plea bargain with a non-cooperation clause in exchange for the defense’s dropping the discovery request; a rare event in any trial, and an about-face for the government.
Paul was imprisoned in Phoenix, Arizona. He was out on bail prior to his incarceration, so he walked himself into the facility. As soon as he entered the system, he was thrown into solitary confinement for a week, then transferred to a unit. “Prison is so race-based,” he says, “The first thing is all these white guys give you your shower shoes, soap, give you what you need until you can get to the store. So you get settled up, and then have to figure your way around things. You have to be careful who you deal with. But it was not that bad of a place compared to other places.” Like other prisoners, Paul read, and he exercised. He ran his first marathon by running hundreds of laps around the prison track. He served three years, and then another six months in a halfway house.
Today, Paul lives with his wife again in his home in the Siskiyou Mountains. He gets up at 5 every morning and goes to work doing forest restoration. He has legally converted the property around his house into a wildlife sanctuary. In the summer, animals are everywhere.
Since his arrest, laws targeting activists for terrorism prosecution have become significantly more draconian. In 2006, Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a bill conceived of and advanced by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-sponsored conservative think tank and lobbying group that champions pro-“free market” legislation. The new law criminalizes actions aimed at “damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise,” including First Amendment activity such as pickets and boycotts. The legislation was crafted explicitly to empower law enforcement to squelch hitherto legal, above-ground animal rights advocacy, after a group of activists called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty nearly shut down an infamous multinational animal testing corporation through purely legal means. Activists charge SHAC’s target, Huntingdon Life Sciences, with killing hundreds of animals a day through their toxicity testing business, which involves practices such as injecting puppies with pesticides. Undercover footage has shown Huntingdon technicians punching beagle puppies in the face and dissecting a live, conscious monkey. Under the AETA’s predecessor, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, six SHAC activists were convicted as terrorists for posting publicly available information on a website. They were sentenced to a combined 23 years in prison. The new law was created because the animal enterprise lobbies felt that those penalties did not go far enough.
This year, laws were passed in Iowa and Utah that make it a crime to take a job at a factory farm for the purpose of shooting clandestine video footage of animal abuse. As with the AETA, these laws were a direct response to the success of an animal advocacy group using legal means to expose industrial cruelty — in this case an undercover video by Mercy For Animals. The FBI has already recommended prosecuting undercover investigators under the AETA as terrorists.
Both the legal and the procedural underpinnings of this enforcement regime are in dispute. The constitutionality of the AETA has been challenged in court, and a recent Congressional report raised questions about the FBI’s habit of pinning the terrorist label on political activists who have never physically harmed a single person. Over the last decade, the government has assumed an aggressive and highly selective posture against radical animal rights and environmental activists that rests on precarious legal and philosophical footing. Its ability to sustain that approach is uncertain.
“The FBI’s obsession with animal rights and environmental activists is not only misguided, it’s flat-out dangerous,” says Will Potter. “The government is spending time and money on political activists, who have never harmed a human being, when violence by right-wing extremists continues to escalate. The Justice Department’s own Inspector General has warned the FBI about this, and so have members of Congress. Yet the FBI continues to focus on environmentalists who are trying to protect life, while downplaying the actions of right-wing groups seeking to take it.”
Paul is not optimistic about the future for animals, the environment and humanity. He sees himself as a realist, and he doesn’t see much reason for hope. He suspects that the world is more likely headed toward environmental collapse than renewal. He’s glad he has lived a life of activism, but he doesn’t believe it’s enough in the end.
At the moment, there’s nothing he can do about it in any case. The terms of Paul’s probation bar him from any form of advocacy work. He has tried to focus on his personal life, his finances, and building a home for himself and the animals around him that reflects his values. But insulating himself from the world is not in his nature, and the ban on activism is a significant frustration.
“There were times in my life that I felt like I needed to take some time off for myself to actually be selfish for once in my life, not as selfless as I have been,” he says. “And I did that, but it didn’t take long before I realized I had to get back into being an activist, because I just felt like I had to keep doing things. And that’s part of being an activist, is not stopping.”