I’m no fan of the Patriot Act, but there is one small section of it that even I assumed would be non-controversial; the prohibition of material support for terrorism. Of course this does raise the question of how our enemies’ acts of violence tend to get labeled as terrorism, while similar acts of violence by our government and its allies never seem to earn that label. But, leaving that aside for the moment, it’s fair to say that most of us would probably share some general common-sense assumptions about the kinds of goods and services that might constitute material support for terrorism. That list might include things like providing weapons, explosives, money, training, or logistical help to a terrorist group.
Most of us will probably be surprised to learn that our government’s own interpretation of “material support” is far less intuitive, and, in fact, goes way beyond these things to include non-violent political speech by U. S. Citizens. This was the crux of the government’s case in its 2010 prosecution of the Humanitarian Law Project, a U.S. non-profit organization that works to promote human rights around the world. The Law Project worked with a Kurdish group that had been engaged in a decades-long violent conflict with Turkey, a key U.S. ally. This Kurdish group was included on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).
(A side note about the designation of Foreign Terrorist Organizations: this list tends to be made up of official enemies and typically excludes equally-violent groups and governments who are partners or allies of the U.S. Once the State Department designates a group as an FTO, there is no way for the group to challenge or appeal that designation. It is a highly-political, and highly-subjective designation, and one that obviously carries extremely serious consequences.)
So the Humanitarian Law Project was working with a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization – which, admittedly, sounds pretty bad on its face. A closer look at the nature of that work, however, reveals that the Law Project was actually teaching the Kurdish group non-violent methods of addressing their grievances under Turkish and international law – essentially showing them a pathway out of armed struggle and into the peaceful political arena.
Still, the U.S. government maintained that this work amounted to material support for a terrorist organization and took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the government in June of 2010. The thing to remember about this ruling is that there were no accusations of arms shipments, or training in explosives, or financing by the Humanitarian Law Project that would have helped the Kurdish group carry out violent acts. Our government’s case hinged on the idea that non-violent speech, when coordinated with a designated Terrorist group, amounts to material support. The Supreme Court went further, and justified the denial of first amendment rights based on the mere concern that this non-violent political speech might somehow help to legitimize a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. This is where the real danger lies.
Now that this door has been opened, it’s hard to see any clear limits—if there are any—on the government’s ability to criminalize dissent merely by claiming that dissent could possibly –even inadvertently—help legitimize an official enemy. It’s not hard to imagine where this is likely to lead.
Like many others of my generation, I first became politically aware in the 1980s, during the surge of activism that swept through American college campuses in opposition to the Apartheid system in South Africa. If this law—or the government’s particular interpretation of this law—had been in effect 25 years ago, myself and tens of thousands of other Americans who participated in the Anti-Apartheid movement could have been subject to prosecution for material support of terrorism (it’s easy to forget that Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was also designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization at that time). Also liable for prosecution would be former President Jimmy Carter, due to his efforts to foster peace processes in different parts of the world, which has necessarily involved his communication with the different parties to those conflicts.
It shouldn’t be surprising that, once the Supreme Court put its stamp of approval on the prosecution of the Humanitarian Law Project, the government immediately turned around and started to use the same law against elements of the U.S. anti-war movement. In September of 2010, three months after the Supreme Court ruling, federal agents carried out a series of seven coordinated raids on the homes of activists in Minneapolis and Chicago. They confiscated computers, cell phones, and loads of documents (political and personal), along with books and artwork – even seizing a poetry journal from an activist’s teenage child.
It was at this point that the government revealed that a Grand Jury had been convened in Chicago for the purpose of investigating whether these activists or their associates were guilty of violating the material support law.
(A side note about Grand Juries: they meet in secret, considering evidence provided by a government prosecutor. People targeted by these investigations don’t have the opportunity to see or respond to this evidence. Those targeted by these investigations are also required to appear before the prosecutor and Grand Jury without an attorney to represent them. The government can also decide to unilaterally “grant” a form of immunity that eclipses a person’s right to remain silent, which means they can be jailed for contempt if they refuse to answer the prosecutor’s questions.)
At the time of the September raids, FBI agents issued subpoenas ordering 14 activists to appear before the Grand Jury. By Christmas, the number of subpoena’d activists grew to 23. All of these people may end up being forced to make a choice between answering questions about their own political beliefs and activities, or the beliefs and activities of their friends and family members (who could then be drawn into the investigation) or face being jailed for refusing to speak.
And exactly who are these activists on whom the government is so keen to spend tax dollars investigating? They are a mix of young and older people – many are parents with families of their own. About half of them are active members or leaders within their Unions. Several of them are teachers. They have been involved in community organizing around police brutality, the rights of poor people and immigrants, and in opposition to U.S. wars in Latin America and the Middle East for many years. A number of them played key roles in organizing large, high-profile protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Each one of them is passionate about peace and justice, and they all have deep roots in their communities. None of them have done anything significantly different from what thousands of other activists around the country have been doing. So the short answer is; they’re not exactly Al Queda.
We don’t have to agree with their specific views, but we all have a responsibility to defend their right to express those views peacefully. If you would like to find out about ways to support these activists or learn more about this situation, you’ll find the Committee to Stop FBI Repression website helpful.
Additionally, here and here are two useful articles about the September raids. Over 225 Unions and Community groups have passed resolutions or issued statements of supports for these activists. Here is one from a coalition of Chicago-are faith-based organizations. And finally, I recommend reading the Supreme Court’s Holder Vs. Humanitarian Law Project decision – especially the dissent by Justice Breyer.