Conheci a AIESEC em um anúncio na minha faculdade, que ofertava estágio e voluntariado no exterior a baixo custo. Sou estudante de jornalismo na UFRGS, e sempre sonhei em viajar pelo mundo, então decidi abraçar a chance. Na sede da ONG em Porto Alegre, fechei um estágio em marketing digital, que duraria três meses, na cidade de Ahmedabad, Índia. Planejei um crowdfunding para cobrir os altos custos, comprei passagens, seguro-viagem, tudo. Mas nunca embarquei.
Fundada em 1948 na Europa, a Aiesec nasceu com o objetivo de criar uma cooperação internacional de estudantes. Hoje, a ONG tem reconhecimento da Unesco, está presente em mais de 120 países e é composta por membros voluntários de idade entre 18 e 29 anos. Esses jovens são os responsáveis por vender e gerenciar oportunidades globais de trabalho e voluntariado. De setembro de 2017 a agosto de 2018, foram 41 mil intercâmbios em todo o mundo, cerca de 4 mil apenas para brasileiros, como me informou Gabriela Toso, a relações públicas da organização no Brasil.
No meu caso, o intercâmbio dependia das sedes da Aiesec em Porto Alegre e em Ahmedabad, já que cada oportunidade é resultado da cooperação entre escritórios de países diferentes. Só no Brasil, 50 escritórios da organização operam em parcerias com outras sedes no mundo inteiro. Para minha viagem, brasileiros e indianos me orientavam na documentação do visto e nos preparativos para conhecer uma cultura totalmente diferente.
Na Aiesec, todas essas responsabilidades de venda, negociação e assistência ao viajante são assumidas por seus voluntários: jovens que não recebem salário. Se eu tivesse ido para a Índia e tivesse qualquer problema em relação ao meu intercâmbio, da chegada no país a problemas com o estágio e hospedagem, eles seriam os responsáveis pelo meu bem-estar.
A comédia de erros
Na prática, após um mês sendo orientado por voluntários dedicados ao “desenvolvimento de meus potenciais de liderança”, comecei a ver a comédia de erros em que me meti. Quando dei por mim, percebi que havia assinado um contrato que dizia que eu cumpriria um intercâmbio social de 50 horas semanais por meio da Aiesec. Não havia nenhuma referência a estágio ou vínculo de trabalho com qualquer empresa. Precisei ligar os pontos sozinho.
Logo descobri que esse “intercâmbio social” é que era o meu “estágio”. Uma jornada de trabalho de 200 horas mensais, de segunda a sábado – muito superior ao permitido pela Lei do Estágio brasileira e pela CLT. O salário? Apenas 2.500 rúpias indianas por mês – R$ 0,65 a hora, ou R$ 130 mensais. Meu salário diário seria R$ 1,63 abaixo da linha da pobreza definida pelo Banco Mundial: R$ 7,05 por dia.
Confiei e aceitei. Você joga “Aiesec” no Google e recebe relatos positivos na imprensa, posts institucionais e blogueiros da moda falando mil maravilhas. As críticas se resumem a uns poucos reclamões no Medium e no submundo das avaliações da ONG no Facebook. Incrível como um bom trabalho de propaganda manipula a gente.
Uma proposta indecente
Minha viagem estava marcada para 3 de fevereiro. Mesmo chateado, ainda queria muito o intercâmbio. Ahmedabad foi por anos a casa de Mahatma Gandhi, meu ídolo pessoal, e eu até já tinha planejado trabalhos extras para compensar o baixo salário. Como estudo jornalismo, a ideia era fazer reportagens freelancer no exterior. Fiz planos de contingência, contatos no país, tudo. Só faltava emitir meu visto em São Paulo, no Consulado-Geral da Índia.
A legislação indiana para concessão de ‘Intern Visas’ requer que, em caso de estágio em uma companhia, o salário pago seja de 7,8 lakhs por ano, o equivalente a 65 mil rúpias indianas por mês (cerca de R$ 3,4 mil mensais). A remuneração oferecida a mim era R$ 3250 menor que esse piso.
Foto: Reprodução/Consulado-Geral da Índia, em São Paulo.
Ao pesquisar os requisitos para entrada no país, percebi que meu salário não era suficiente para o visto de estágio, apesar da própria Aiesec ter me orientado a solicitá-lo. Ao falar isso para eles ouvi que eu trabalharia numa startup, que haveria regras diferentes das aplicadas em empresas tradicionais. Na Índia, ONGs e startups seriam equivalentes. Pareceu furada, mas resolvi dar mais um voto de confiança.
No dia 12 de janeiro, comentei minhas inseguranças com um voluntário indiano da Aiesec, que respondeu incrédulo. No grupo destinado a conversarmos sobre minha viagem, outro membro do escritório de Ahmedabad dá a justificativa de que, na Índia, startups não são tratadas como companhias.
Reprodução: Pedro Nakamura/arquivo pessoal
“Eles estão na maior ONG jovem do mundo, trabalham toda hora com relações internacionais, devem entender dessas coisas”, pensei, e embarquei para São Paulo, já que a solicitação de visto só poderia ser feita pessoalmente. Cheguei lá em 23 de janeiro e fui direto ao Consulado-Geral da Índia, na Avenida Paulista. Paguei a taxa de R$ 325, entreguei os documentos e depois tive a honra de ter o visto rejeitado pelo cônsul indiano em pessoa. O salário era baixo demais, ele disse.
A empresa na qual eu estagiaria, Writopedia, justifica que não poderia me pagar o piso estabelecido por lei por ela ser uma startup e não uma companhia, mas não citam leis ou nada de objetivo que o evidencie. No lugar disso, no terceiro parágrafo, a própria Writopedia chama a si mesma de “companhia”. Qual a diferença, afinal? Eu não entendi, o cônsul também não.
Reprodução: Pedro Nakamura/arquivo pessoal
Apesar da recusa, eu tinha mais um dia em São Paulo, e a Aiesec propôs outra tentativa para salvar o intercâmbio. Em uma nova requisição, queriam que eu mentisse o propósito da viagem. Pediram para eu solicitar um visto de trabalho voluntário e social, apesar de meu estágio seguir o mesmo. Preferi recusar e evitar transtornos, como o da intercambista da Aiesec que foi presa na China por trabalhar com um visto inadequado, em 2014. Ouvi ainda de membros da Aiesec em Porto Alegre que havia deixado de viajar “por razão fútil”.
Enquanto eu estava no consulado negociando o visto rejeitado, membros da Aiesec sugerem omitir informações em nova requisição de visto de voluntariado, na modalidade X-Entry Visa. Para isso, forneceriam novos documentos que não falariam em startup, trabalho ou dinheiro.
Reprodução: arquivo pessoal/Pedro Nakamura
Com o intercâmbio cancelado, minha família teve um prejuízo de R$ 3 mil. Comecei a me perguntar como uma ONG internacional que funcionou tão mal comigo poderia dar tão certo com outros. Certamente deveria haver mais casos como o meu, talvez até piores.
Por isso, decidi investigar como a Aiesec auxilia os jovens que embarcam em seus intercâmbios. Uma coisa é você ser mal orientado em casa, outra num continente distante. Busquei nas avaliações da ONG no Facebook e também nas menções a Aiesec no Twitter por usuários que também tivessem tido problemas. No Medium, diversos textos relatam experiências terríveis.
A primeira história que conheci veio de um grupo no WhatsApp de brasileiros que moram na Índia ou já viajaram para lá, no qual entrei logo após assinar com a Aiesec. Quando comecei a ter problemas com o visto, participantes que tinham ido ao país pela ONG se compadeceram. Entre nós, começamos a compartilhar nossas más experiências com a organização. Uma delas aconteceu em Surate, a 250 km de Ahmedabad.
Pesadelos em um continente distante
“Não sei como essas pessoas foram capazes de fazer isso, de me tratar como trataram, e não sei como consegui sair de lá e me recuperar”, me disse a arquiteta Isabela, 22 anos, sobre a experiência com a Aiesec de junho a outubro de 2018.
Conversei com Isabela, que pediu para não ter o sobrenome publicado, via WhatsApp, em fevereiro. Ela viajou a Surate para trabalhar por seis meses na faculdade de Arquitetura da Fundação Bagwan Mahavir. Ainda no Brasil, membros da ONG na Índia disseram que a hospedagem seria em uma residência universitária, compartilhada com mais sete intercambistas estrangeiros. Uma promessa parecida à feita a mim. Não pude comprová-la, mas Isabela sim – e foi enganada.
A arquiteta acabou em uma casa lotada de homens indianos que não falavam inglês. Cerca de dez dormiam na sala, outros incontáveis nos demais cômodos e Isabela sozinha num quarto, em um país notório por casos de estupro coletivo. O lugar, na verdade, abrigava funcionários temporários da faculdade, que prestavam todo tipo de serviços, e não estudantes.
“Fazer um intercâmbio na Índia era um sonho de infância. Hoje se tornou meu pior pesadelo”, escreveu Isabela para as sedes da ONG em Surate e Aracaju, em julho de 2018.
Isabela evitava andar pela casa para não ser assediada. Passava o dia trancada no quarto e logo aprendeu a xingar em hindi, a língua local, para repelir abusos. Mesmo assim, trancafiar-se não foi suficiente. O zelador da casa, Jayesh, costumava entrar em seu quarto sem permissão, destrancando a porta com uma chave-mestre, a pretexto de lhe entregar lanches ou garrafas d’água. “Eu dormindo ele começava a bater no quarto, eu de pijama, não queria abrir, estava mal… Ele simplesmente abria e entrava.”
Um mês depois, Isabela conseguiu se transferir de acomodação. Dessa vez, moraria sozinha, em outra casa cuidada pelo mesmo Jayesh. Ela conta que, dias depois, o zelador invadiu o quarto enquanto ela dormia, acompanhado de outro indiano. A justificativa era verificar o chuveiro, sem aviso prévio.
“[Na casa] sentia-me insegura e abandonada em uma realidade oposta à que me foi prometida no Brasil”, escreveu Isabela, em carta de reclamação enviada em julho de 2018 às duas sedes responsáveis por sua viagem. Sozinha na Índia e ignorada pelos membros de Surate, a intercambista pediu ao seu escritório da ONG no Brasil, em Aracaju, a transferência para outra “oportunidade”, como são chamadas as vagas de estágio.
Todo intercâmbio da Aiesec é pago. A organização vende ao viajante sua assistência e intermediação com alguma empresa (ou ONG, para voluntários) no país de destino. Empresas compram da Aiesec assistência e intermediação para contratar intercambistas – nome chique para mão de obra barata. O escritório brasileiro recusou-se a realocar Isabela a menos que ela pagasse a taxa de compra para outro estágio: R$ 2.088, valor que a brasileira não pôde pagar.
Membro da Aiesec em Aracaju pede taxa extra para realocar a arquiteta em novo estágio. Isabela lhe contou a sua história, mas o voluntário da ONG parecia “bem perdido” e “desinteressado” em ajudá-la, relatou a intercambista.
Reprodução: Isabela/arquivo pessoal
Isabela teve de permanecer em Surate. Sem companhia, a arquiteta passou a ter diarreia e dores pelo corpo e adoeceu a ponto de não conseguir trocar de roupa sozinha. Descobriu que a água fornecida à moradia estava contaminada. Doente, ela pediu mais uma vez ajuda à ONG no país, mas o voluntário que supervisionava seu intercâmbio havia se desligado.
A jovem só foi levada ao hospital no décimo dia de infecção, quando um novo voluntário foi designado para auxiliá-la. Acompanharam Isabela até o hospital Green Leaf e a lá a abandonaram. Os membros da ONG queriam ir para uma conferência nacional da Aiesec em Goa, cidade a 800 km de Surate.
Ao sair, Isabela foi avisada de que novas intercambistas chegariam à moradia para um voluntariado de um mês. Antes disso, a brasileira quis se reunir com a Aiesec local para discutir os problemas. Ouviu de Siddarth, um dos membros da ONG, que todos os problemas só aconteceram porque ela “não cooperava”. Ele ainda sugeriu que a faculdade estava insatisfeita com seu trabalho, o que a arquiteta descobriu ser mentira.
Isabela entra em contato com Siddarth após descobrir que ele mentiu sobre a faculdade estar insatisfeita com seu trabalho. “Por que você fez isso?”, ela pergunta. “Entendo que fui um pouco longe demais. Estarei fora da cidade e não poderei mais te responder. Desculpe-me”, ele responde.
Reprodução: Isabela/arquivo pessoal
Com contrato até novembro de 2018, a arquiteta resolveu desistir do intercâmbio em outubro, quando seu visto no país venceu. A Aiesec havia a orientado errado na emissão, que saiu com um mês a menos que o necessário.
Um problema global
A plataforma internacional da Aiesec promove o intercâmbio de jovens entre quaisquer de seus escritórios. Após o cadastro de um interessado no Brasil, por exemplo, os membros da organização podem oferecer programas no outro lado do mundo e vice-versa.
Foi assim que me ofereceram vaga em marketing digital na Índia, e a D. H., uma veterinária egípcia, um estágio na América do Sul. Conheci-a através de uma brasileira que foi sua colega de trabalho insalubre. A jovem, que pediu para não ter seu nome revelado, chegou em agosto de 2018 a Chía, Colômbia, para uma experiência de um ano como professora de biologia. Precisou se demitir em dezembro porque não aguentou o jeito com que a tratavam.
Segundo D. H., nada do que estava em seu contrato com a Aiesec era mentira. O problema é que questões importantes sobre seu empregador lhe foram omitidas. “Seria mais honesto nos avisar: ‘Essa escola tem tais problemas, você aceita vir?’. Se eu soubesse de algumas coisas talvez não aceitasse a vaga”.
Na escola de classe alta em que foi trabalhar, a veterinária e outros estagiários da Aiesec eram obrigados a trabalhar nove horas corridas por dia sem pausas para descanso. No almoço a egípcia tinha 15 minutos para comer e no resto do tempo deveria “supervisionar” os estudantes.
“Você não é tratado como um ser humano, é tratado como um escravo”, disse D. H.
Isso trouxe constrangimento para D. H., que é muçulmana e respeita o Salat, as rezas diárias feitas ao longo do dia. Para isso, ela precisaria de duas pausas curtas para preces, de três a cinco minutos cada, durante o meio-dia e na metade da tarde, num total de sete minutos diários. Mesmo assim, ela diz que suas chefes viam isso como “um desrespeito aos horários da escola”.
Segundo ela, uma das coordenadoras lhe disse: “Não estamos te pagando para rezar”. Durante o Eid Al Adha, festival muçulmano que ocorre em agosto, a jovem pediu permissão para sair do trabalho uma hora mais cedo e ir a uma mesquita em Bogotá, a uma hora de Chía. Apesar de ter terminado seu trabalho com antecedência, o pedido foi negado.
Segundo a lei colombiana, os trabalhadores têm direito a férias remuneradas. No contrato assinado com a Aiesec por D. H., foi omitida a informação de que os estagiários da ONG não teriam os direitos trabalhistas garantidos. Na imagem, membro da organização na Colômbia dá a notícia de que a veterinária não vai receber o pagamento das três semanas de férias do natal de 2018.
Reprodução: D. H./arquivo pessoal
A escola também dava muitas tarefas burocráticas às estagiárias, que não conseguiam terminá-las durante o expediente. Por isso, trabalhavam em casa, às vezes das 18h às meia noite, e até aos finais de semana. “No fim do mês, diziam que não nos dariam o salário até acabarmos essas atividades”, relata.
A veterinária disse que reclamou várias vezes à direção do colégio, sem sucesso. “Diziam que eu não era uma boa professora ou que eu não sabia gerenciar meu tempo”, afirma D. H.. Ela conta que pediu ajuda à Aiesec, mas foi informada de que seu visto no país estava vinculado à ONG e que não havia outros cargos semelhantes. Se saísse da vaga, precisaria deixar a Colômbia.
“Eu não estou feliz nesse lugar. Sinto-me desapontada e deprimida”, relatou D. H., em e-mail à Aiesec Egito.
A egípcia não aguentou e pediu demissão em 27 de dezembro, cinco meses após o início do intercâmbio. Três semanas depois, conseguiu outra vaga como professora, ainda vinculada à Aiesec. Em fevereiro, demitiu-se novamente e pediu a quebra de seu vínculo com a organização.
Para a veterinária, a gota d’água foi o atraso no pagamento de sua remuneração pela Aiesec local, que recebia em dia da nova empresa. Em alguns locais, em vez do salário ser pago ao estagiário, é entregue à Aiesec, que o repassa aos estagiários. Isto evita vínculos trabalhistas e é uma das formas de intermediação entre iniciativa privada e viajante promovidas por escritórios da organização.
Contratos quebrados e promessas não cumpridas
Izabela Souza formou-se em Letras na Universidade Mackenzie com bolsa do ProUni. Foi a primeira da família a ter ensino superior e sentia o peso das expectativas sobre si. Negra e moradora de Jaçanã, periferia de São Paulo, a jovem de 26 anos decidiu fazer intercâmbio como forma de melhorar o currículo. Em 2017, também seria a primeira de casa a ter experiência internacional – que terminou em uma denúncia publicada no Medium.
Viajou pela Aiesec para uma vaga de professora de inglês na Escola de Línguas Kavacik Branch, em Istambul, Turquia, onde cumpriria 160 horas mensais – uma média de 8h por dia, num expediente regular de segunda a sexta. Chegou em julho de 2017 para trabalhar um ano. Resistiu até dezembro. “Num domingo sentei no chão da escola e só conseguia chorar. Entrei em pânico”, relatou.
A escola recebia outros estagiários da Aiesec, e, segundo ela, tudo começou a dar errado a partir do terceiro mês, quando a intercambista mais antiga, uma russa chamada Elena, saiu do projeto. “Você vai entender por que esse lugar é terrível”, disse a Souza antes de partir. Foi aí que a brasileira começou a ter de fazer horas extras sem ser consultada. Foram 3 horas em outubro e 39 horas em novembro.
“Quando a Aiesec diz que ‘não acham que eu posso me demitir’, bom, o trabalho escravo é o único que conheço em que não se pode pedir demissão”, disse Souza, em e-mail à ONG.
A atribuição de horas extras não notificadas ou sem mútuo acordo violava o contrato assinado por Souza. Enquanto a intercambista cumpria 199 horas em um mês, outros professores faziam apenas 100. Nessa escala, a brasileira trabalhava seis vezes na semana com um dia de folga, em jornadas que chegavam a 12 horas diárias.
Souza resolveu reclamar ao escritório da ONG em Istambul e pediu para que a trocassem de estágio. Relatou estar doente, se alimentando mal, com problemas de sono e deprimida. Chegou a trabalhar 32 horas em três dias – dois deles num fim de semana. Ouviu de um membro da Aiesec que precisaria da aprovação de Esra, sua chefe, para deixar a escola.
Em mensagem a membro da AIESEC Istambul-Ásia, Souza disse sentir seu “cérebro derretendo” de tanto trabalhar. O voluntário respondeu que “não achava que ela poderia deixar o cargo”.
Reprodução: Izabela Souza/arquivo pessoal
Quando falou com Esra, foi destratada. A gerente teria dito que “era falta de ética dela” e que “ia ver com a diretoria da escola se a liberariam”. A brasileira argumentou que a escola violara o contrato ao escalá-la em horas extras não acordadas. Acertaram que a intercambista trabalharia somente mais 15 dias, até o fim de 2017.
No dia seguinte, surpresa. Esra afirmou ter decidido com a Aiesec local, sem o consentimento de Souza, que ela trabalharia janeiro inteiro. O escritório da ONG no Brasil, Aiesec USP, interviu e orientou a professora de inglês a abandonar o serviço. Turcos então começaram a pedir à brasileira que permanecesse na vaga. “Você não acha cruel abandonar as crianças que estão sendo educadas por você?”, disse o vice-presidente do escritório em Istambul.
Em prints tirados pelo próprio vice-presidente da Aiesec Istambul-Ásia, ele manda mensagens para Souza e a diz que ela não poderia se demitir. “Se você não pensa na escola, pelo menos pense nas crianças”, disse.
Reprodução: Izabela Souza/arquivo pessoal
Em 23 de dezembro, Souza abandonou o cargo e cortou seu vínculo com a Aiesec. Conseguiu uma vaga noutra escola, sem associação nenhuma com a ONG, em Balikesir, a cerca de 300 km da capital turca. Dias depois, precisou retornar a Istambul para buscar o salário das 132 horas trabalhadas em dezembro. Nova surpresa: a escola resolveu pagar 1.000 liras turcas a menos do que devia.
Por sentir-se ameaçada pela ex-chefe e membros da Aiesec local, Souza decidiu tratar da questão somente quando voltasse ao Brasil. Mas levou mais três meses para que a professora recebesse a remuneração faltante, com descontos de R$ 138, já que a escola não quis assumir os custos bancários e de câmbio.
Por que não processar a Aiesec?
A Aiesec oferece três programas de intercâmbio global: trabalho voluntário, estágio em startups e oportunidades em empresas. Empregos e estágios duram de três meses a um ano, e projetos sociais entre quatro e doze semanas. Menos tempo, mas ainda o suficiente para problemas.
Devido a carências na assistência da ONG, intercambistas montam grupos no WhatsApp em busca de apoio mútuo. Na conversa, participantes de programa de voluntariado reclamam de acomodação providenciada pela Aiesec no Egito.
Lara Garcia/arquivo pessoal
A advogada Thaís Ferreira, por exemplo, formalizou por e-mail, em julho passado, pedido de reembolso por conta de uma experiência frustrada no Vietnã entre janeiro e maio de 2018. A brasileira precisou trabalhar numa empresa com a qual ela não assinou nenhum contrato porque, ao chegar ao país, descobriu que a vaga prometida a ela não existia. Por isso, a advogada precisou receber um salário 200 dólares menor do que o esperado e custear a acomodação do próprio bolso (a Aiesec se comprometera em contrato a providenciar e cobrir a estadia).
Em Cartagena, na Colômbia, oito intercambistas de voluntariado foram alojados em casa infestada por baratas. “Não tinha colchão suficiente. Duas pessoas dormiam no chão por noite e o resto dormia em colchão inflável”, relata Luísa Bonato, que viajou à cidade para um projeto de seis semanas.
Reprodução: Luísa Bonato/arquivo pessoal
A intercambista havia comprado o intercâmbio por R$ 1.350 no escritório da organização na USP e alegou quebra de contrato quando voltou ao Brasil. Desde então, tem sido enrolada. Hoje, nove meses depois da reclamação inicial, a Aiesec USP ainda diz “analisar” o caso.
Formalização de pedido de reembolso foi feita por e-mail em 14 de julho de 2018, enviada para seis representantes da Aiesec de diferentes escritórios. A advogada começou a receber atenção para sua solicitação somente em setembro.
Reprodução: Thaís Ferreira/arquivo pessoal
Como a organização é uma entidade internacional, a culpa se dilui entre escritórios de diferentes países, os parceiros da organização e seus membros voluntários.
Em meu caso, por exemplo, quando nos reunimos para discutir a rejeição do visto indiano, o presidente da Aiesec em Porto Alegre chegou a dizer que eu teria prejuízos muito maiores caso os processasse, para além dos R$ 3 mil que perdi. E tinha razão.
Desde o primeiro contato, o caso se arrasta até hoje. Esse e-mail da imagem é de 22 de março de 2019.
Reprodução: Thaís Ferreira/arquivo pessoal
Primeiro, por causa do status de ONG da Aiesec. O que vou tirar de uma organização sem fins lucrativos? Além disso, cada escritório local e diretório nacional são pessoas jurídicas diferentes, todos reunidos sob a marca “Aiesec” por um modelo de associação. Segundo, quem me mandou documentos imprecisos foram indianos, e não brasileiros. Como provar que a sede daqui me deve alguma coisa? Como processar um indiano?
Quando comecei a conversar com ex-voluntários da ONG, descobri que existe um documento que define as responsabilidades de cada escritório da Aiesec nesses casos e os direitos dos intercambistas em caso de problemas. A questão é que a maior parte dos membros da ONG desconhece essas regras, dispostas na política interna de intercâmbios da organização, o chamado XPP Policy, um documento de 51 páginas, disponível somente em inglês (o que dificulta o acesso de quem não é fluente).
Uma organização que desconhece as próprias regras
A Aiesec provê uma espécie de “tribuna internacional”, em que um escritório em Porto Alegre pode cobrar outro em Ahmedabad. Em meu caso – recusa de visto em função de orientação errada –, a cláusula 22.214.171.124.1 prevê que a Aiesec em Ahmedabad seria a responsável por me reembolsar. O chocante é que a sede em Porto Alegre nunca me orientou nesse sentido.
No fim de fevereiro, entrevistei a diretora de Relações Públicas da Aiesec Brasil, Gabriela Toso. Contei a ela o caso de Isabela, abandonada sem água potável e doente em Surate, Índia. Toso respondeu que “a responsabilidade de atendê-la era do seguro-saúde, e não nossa”, e eximiu a organização de quaisquer responsabilidades. Mas, segundo o XPP (cláusulas 126.96.36.199 e 188.8.131.52), é obrigação da Aiesec auxiliar o intercambista na obtenção de recursos essenciais, como água, luz e eletricidade.
Advogado da Aiesec no Brasil questiona o cunho jornalístico de meu trabalho, afirma que minha apuração visa manchar a imagem da ONG e sugere que haverá ação indenizatória caso a matéria seja publicada. Toso recebeu a ameaça como cópia em seu e-mail.
Reprodução: Pedro Nakamura/arquivo pessoal
Uma semana após essa entrevista com a diretora de Relações Públicas, recebi de um advogado da Aiesec Brasil um e-mail em que ele afirmava que a apuração jornalística sobre a ONG constitui “fato grave” sujeito a “eventual ação indenizatória”. Enviei mais perguntas a Toso, para confirmar dados da entrevista e questionar por que a diretora nacional desconhece as regras da própria companhia. A Relações Públicas recusou-se a responder e argumentou que existiam “cláusulas de confidencialidade” sobre as oportunidades de terceiros, apesar das perguntas se referirem diretamente às políticas internas de intercâmbio da organização.
De lá para cá, conversei (entre entrevistas e recusas) com cerca de 30 pessoas, de intercambistas a voluntários, analisei mais de 100 páginas de documentos em três línguas e reuni inúmeros prints de tela, vídeos e fotografias para essa reportagem. Ressalto isso porque, segundo o e-mail do advogado da Aiesec Brasil, ela é apenas uma tentativa de sujar “forma injusta e gratuita” a imagem da ONG no Brasil.
O XPP, que é público, prevê ainda protocolos antiassédio e para denúncias de irregularidades que não são sempre seguidos por seus membros. Para entender a questão, localizei ex-voluntários da organização, que entrevistei via WhatsApp. Segundo três deles, que não quiseram se identificar, nem os próprios membros conhecem ou se importam com as regras internas da organização que coibiriam abusos.
Vender intercâmbios é mais importante, na Aiesec, do que garantir boas experiências.
“Eles são mestres em ficar jogando a culpa pro outro e se isentando. Não conseguem enxergar que, quando alguém erra, é culpa da organização e de seus processos falhos”, relata J.S., ex-voluntário.
Além disso, como poucos estão cientes da importância do documento, viajantes não sabem que podem requerer quebra de contrato ou solicitar novas oportunidades por conta das violações sofridas. Nenhum dos intercambistas dos casos que citei sabia da existência do XPP e que as situações que enfrentaram eram passíveis de reembolso ou reparação nos termos dele.
Para os ex-voluntários entrevistados, vender intercâmbios é mais importante, na Aiesec, do que garantir boas experiências. Segundo J. S., muitos escritórios locais estão dispostos a sacrificar intercambistas a fim de manter números e metas. Viajantes tornam-se “tubo de ensaio” de jovens voluntários que não têm ideia de como gerenciar oportunidades internacionais.
SUVs blindadas e com vidros escuros desfilavam em uma alameda repleta de árvores frondosas, onde um jardim impecável contornava um campo de golfe. Protegidos por uma cerca elétrica, dois homens caminhavam tranquilamente pelo gramado no amanhecer de uma quinta-feira de dezembro. Mais adiante, mansões se escondiam atrás de muros de até quatro metros de altura.
Esse cenário de riqueza no bairro Country Club, comum a qualquer área de classe alta numa cidade próspera, fica em Caracas, capital da Venezuela, um país que sofre com uma série de apagões, onde faltam remédios, combustível, alimentos e papel higiênico e cuja economia encolheu 18% em 2018 após encolher 14% em 2017, de acordo com o FMI. O bairro é um tradicional reduto das oligarquias que dominam o país há séculos, mas sua presença vem diminuindo ao longo das últimas duas décadas. Em seu lugar, uma crescente nova elite de militares e empresários ocupou as casas do Country Club, pagas com os frutos de seus canais privilegiados (e, muitas vezes, corruptos) de negócios com o governo de Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro e seu antecessor, Hugo Chávez, chegaram no poder em 1999 prometendo um governo “bolivariano” que combateria a desigualdade social – e fizeram avanços nos primeiros anos, bancados com lucro do petróleo abundante no país. Hoje, com a economia em queda livre (com um empurrão dos EUA), a Venezuela é o segundo país mais desigual do hemisfério, e a riqueza de muitos chavistas — conhecidos como enchufados e boliburgueses — desmonta a retórica socialista do governo.
No Country Club, o único movimento nas calçadas é o vaivém de jardineiros, empregadas domésticas uniformizadas e equipes de segurança privada que acompanham atentamente qualquer veículo que destoe do padrão da região.
Enchufado quer dizer conectado em português. Mas também é uma gíria, em espanhol, para apadrinhado, uma evidente ironia para classificar essa casta de novos ricos venezuelanos. Já boliburgueses são todos os civis que, graças ao apoio ao regime bolivariano, obtiveram contratos vultosos, operaram esquemas corruptos ou lucraram com especulação financeira para subir na pirâmide social e hoje vivem uma vida bem distante daquela pregada pelo socialismo chavista. Todo boliburgues é um enchufado, mas nem todo mundo que tem boas conexões ficou rico.
Dólares preferenciais geraram lucros obscenos a seus operadores.
“Dois anos atrás, o público estava indiferente sobre os boliburgueses, mas, no ano passado, eu vi uma grande diferença na opinião pública, que agora é absolutamente contra eles”, explica Dimitris Pantoulas, um consultor político radicado em Caracas. “Por causa de seus atos, as pessoas estão sofrendo.”
Juntos com os boliburgueses, muitos militares também fizeram novas fortunas ao lado dos empresários com acesso aos disputados “dólares preferenciais”, vendidos pelo governo por valores inferiores à cotação disponível para a população ou ao câmbio clandestino das ruas do país. Revendidos no mercado paralelo, dólares preferenciais geraram lucros obscenos a seus operadores.
O apoio ao regime chavista mingua dia a dia nas ruas da Venezuela.
Foto: Alvaro Andrade/eder content
Por cerca de 15 anos, a Venezuela teve um intrincado regime cambial de múltiplas taxas oficiais. Quando Hugo Chávez impôs os primeiros controles cambiais para restringir a fuga de capitais do país, em 2003, o governo criou taxas diferenciadas para empresários e para o público em geral. Esse sistema alimentou e foi alimentado pela corrupção e pela inflação meteórica, o que produziu distorções como o enriquecimento daqueles com um canal direto de acesso aos disputados dólares subsidiados leiloados pelo Banco Central.
A manobra era conhecida desde o início da década, mas detalhes só vieram à tona em 2017, quando os vazamentos dos Panamá Papers revelaram que muitos desses militares e empresários abriam empresas em diferentes paraísos fiscais apenas para simular exportações comprando e vendendo os dólares preferenciais. Eles aumentavam constantemente o preço das transações fictícias para superfaturar valores e ter acesso a ainda mais dólares a preços módicos. Depois, depositavam o dinheiro em paraísos fiscais.
O sistema de taxas subsidiadas vigorou até o início de 2018, quando o governo Maduro anunciou a unificação de todas as taxas oficiais de câmbio. Por 16 anos, a especulação no mercado paralelo foi impulsionada por um detalhe: o controle do governo sobre o valor do dólar tornou as casas de câmbio inúteis, e o dinheiro em papel, mesmo o bolívar, quase não existe – o cenário mudou em janeiro, quando o governo afrouxou o câmbio oficial, e trocar dinheiro nas casas de câmbio voltou a ser vantajoso.
A Venezuela figurou em mais de 241 mil registros do Panamá Papers, o conjunto de arquivos vazados do escritório de advocacia Mossack Fonseca investigado pelo Consórcio Internacional de Jornalistas. Entre os venezuelanos com contas suspeitas no exterior, estavam ex-funcionários do gabinete do Hugo Chávez.
Foto: Alvaro Andrade/eder content
Eu passei 20 dias na Venezuela na virada do ano, viajando por dez cidades, e pude testemunhar os contrastes de um país em colapso.
Visitei os shoppings centers de Palos Grandes e Altamira, bairros nobres de Caracas, onde quase não há sinais da crise que levou mais de três milhões de pessoas a deixarem a Venezuela. Também vi caraquenhos revirando lixo em busca de comida na região central da cidade enquanto não há escassez nas gôndolas e carrinhos que fazem fila no caixa dos supermercados dos bairros nobres. Nas compras de uma família que ostentava tênis importados nos pés e celulares de última geração na mão, havia carne, chocolates e fardos de Coca-Cola – cada garrafa custava meio salário mínimo venezuelano, cerca de três dólares em dezembro de 2018.
Às vésperas do último Natal, lojas de grifes internacionais, como Victoria Secret, Zara e Timberland, atendiam a uma clientela exclusiva interessada em produtos importados com preços que representam muitos meses de salário para a maioria da população. “Estamos em uma zona bem localizada, por isso ainda temos um pouco de movimento. É um público diferenciado”, justificou a vendedora de uma loja de cosméticos, que media as palavras para explicar quem ainda tem tanto dinheiro no país.
O consultor Dimitris Pantoulas, que estudou a elite venezuelana por anos, estima que metade da alta-roda local é formada por novos ricos. Números precisos, no entanto, são impossíveis de obter na Venezuela porque parte da renda da elite é de natureza ilícita e porque o governo parou de divulgar dados econômicos detalhados e confiáveis em 2015, alegando que estavam sendo distorcidos pela oposição.
O grupo que tem mais interesse em manter tudo como está é o dos militares.
Os velhos ricos — dinastias centenárias que dominam o país desde sua colonização — sempre formaram o núcleo duro da oposição ao chavismo. Muitos perderam seu patrimônio com expropriações e fugiram do país ao longo dos anos, mas vários ficaram na tentativa de sobreviver ao regime ou de se aproximar de novos governantes e de participar de esquemas de corrupção. Alguns ficaram ainda mais ricos ao lado dos chavistas. “A elite venezuelana mudou significativamente nos últimos 20 anos”, conta Pantoulas.
Todos tiveram que negociar com o governo de uma forma ou outra para continuar operando no país devido ao controle de câmbio. Mas nunca ganharam poder político e, ao perceber a fragilidade do apoio a Maduro, articularam contra o governo para retomar o país (uma realidade semelhante à vivida pela tradicional elite brasileira desde 2013: lucrou com o governo do PT e, ao mesmo tempo, aderiu ao impeachment de Dilma Rousseff).
O grupo que tem mais interesse em manter tudo como está é o dos militares. Eles formam um pelotão importante da elite que consegue manter o conforto enquanto quase 90% da população não tem renda para comprar comida suficiente e sofre com o aumento da violência e da criminalidade. Desde que Hugo Chávez chegou ao poder, a presença de generais cresceu significativamente no Palácio de Miraflores, sede do governo venezuelano.
Ainda em 2002, quando um locaute foi usado para forçar a renúncia de Chávez, a produção de petróleo foi quase totalmente paralisada na PDVSA, provocando perdas bilionárias ao país. Após a justiça decretar a ilegalidade do movimento, o ex-presidente demitiu cerca de 17 mil funcionários da petroleira e os substituiu por “gente de confiança”. Desde então, militares se revezam no comando da exploração de petróleo. Passados 17 anos, ela caiu pela metade, derrubando uma economia que tem na commodity 91% das receitas de exportação.
A queda no preço do petróleo no mercado internacional também contribuiu para o desastre na PDVSA – de 2014 a 2017, o recuo foi de 60%. Quando a cotação estava em alta, Chávez e Maduro aproveitaram a entrada extra de dólares para expropriar empresas que consideravam estratégicas ou eram acusadas de bloquear a distribuição de produtos.
Venezuelanos protestam falta de água e eletricidade após mais um apagão em Caracas.
Foto: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images
O general do arroz
O chavismo aumentou de 74 para 526 as companhias em que o Estado é dono ou principal acionista, resultado direto das expropriações, segundo levantamento divulgado pela Transparência Venezuela em 2018. Além disso, mais de 5 milhões de hectares de terras passaram para as mãos do Estado, segundo a Federação Agrícola do país. Em 2008, a Venezuela produzia 70% dos alimentos consumidos no país. Agora, só 25%.
Em mais de 2 mil quilômetros de viagem, só foi possível notar produção agrícola de subsistência, em pequena escala e ainda assim pouco diversificada – em geral, plantações de mandioca, banana e meia dúzia de animais de corte.
Os militares comandam setores vitais, como as importações de alimentos e remédios, e dirigem empresas expropriadas. A estratégia vem sustentando Maduro no comando da Venezuela: em troca dos privilégios, os generais têm interesse que o governo fique em pé. São o último bastião de suporte a Maduro. Entre a população mais pobre, outrora pilar do movimento chavista, o apoio ao governo caiu de 40% em 2016 para apenas 18% em fevereiro.
‘Há o general do arroz, o general do leite, da manteiga. É um disparate. O nosso exército tem mais generais que a OTAN’.
A inaptidão dos militares para o gerenciamento econômico ficou cada vez mais evidente ao longo dos anos: poucos meios de produção expropriados pela revolução estão organizados e funcionando, especialmente na área de alimentos – a maioria das indústrias está parada. A produção no campo minguou, as empresas alimentícias foram fechadas, o bloqueio externo reduziu a matéria-prima, e os produtos desapareceram das prateleiras.
Mesmo assim, os militares assumem cada vez mais responsabilidades em diversos setores estatizados da economia, de indústrias de produtos lácteos a fábricas de cimento ou insumos agrícolas. Quando o governo criou o Comando de Suprimento e centralizou completamente as importações de alimentos do país, em 2016, comandantes de todas as patentes foram designados para gerenciar áreas específicas da compra de insumos.
“Há o general do arroz, o general do leite, da manteiga. É um disparate. O nosso exército tem mais generais que a OTAN”, lembra Xabier Coscojuela, jornalista e diretor do portal TalCual, que me conduziu pelas regiões abastadas de Caracas. São cerca de 2 mil generais, a maioria nomeados por um governo onde os militares já chegaram a ocupar quase a metade dos ministérios – hoje, estão em um a cada quatro gabinetes do primeiro escalão.
Tanto poder em uma terra de escassez virou terreno fértil para a corrupção. Um dos casos mais notórios é o do general Néstor Reverol, que foi acusado pela justiça americana e mesmo assim foi nomeado ministro do Interior. Segundo a denúncia, o militar colaborou com narcotraficantes quando dirigia a agência antidrogas da Venezuela, ainda no governo Chávez, informando-lhes antecipadamente sobre as operações. Reverol e o governo negam as acusações. Um ex-chefe de inteligência de alto escalão (também acusado pelo governo dos EUA) que se voltou contra Maduro fez acusações semelhantes em uma recente entrevista ao New York Times. Há muitos outros casos em que militares venezuelanos aparecem envolvidos em graves suspeitas de desvios de produtos, cobrança de propinas e contrabando de combustível.
Gozando de tantos privilégios, é natural que a caserna tenha se mantido leal ao governo e, salvo raros levantes e as deserções recentes, não dê sinais de que irá reconhecer a autoridade do autoproclamado presidente Juan Guaidó em sua tentativa de derrubar Nicolás Maduro com apoio dos EUA. Pelo contrário: o regime e seus militares dão mostras cada vez mais claras de que seguirão usando a força contra opositores e jornalistas. Desde o começo de 2019, já são mais de 40 mortes em protestos e 850 prisões, incluindo 77 crianças, segundo o Escritório do Alto Comissariado das Nações Unidas para os Direitos Humanos. Polícia e forças de segurança são alvos de diversas acusações de violação dos direitos humanos.
Cristian Hernandez/AFP/Getty Images
Remédios racionados e iates de luxo
A classe média venezuelana não escapa da crise. Mesmo quem possui uma boa casa e um carro na garagem tem cada vez menos a ostentar: água, alface, arepa (um tipo de pão feito de farinha de milho), tomate e salsichas era tudo que um casal de aposentados tinha na geladeira quando me recebeu.
Bethzaida e Silvio Santamaria, ambos com 64 anos, levavam uma vida estável em Ciudad Bolívar, leste venezuelano, até a crise se agravar. Viram toda a família emigrar para Equador, Colômbia, Espanha e Brasil. “Minha casa, no Natal, tinha mais de 20 pessoas. Agora, serei eu, meu companheiro e você”, me disse a matriarca. Ela não tem dúvidas quando perguntei quando sua vida mudou: “Há 20 anos”, respondeu, numa referência à chegada de Chávez ao poder.
“Ainda tenho ajuda externa, dos filhos que me mandam 50 dólares por mês, mas tem gente aqui do lado sem comer”, lamentou Bethzaida. A ajuda da família não é suficiente para evitar que a aposentada adote contingências cruéis. “Tive de partir ao meio as pílulas de uma medicação para evitar AVC pois não sabia quando chegaria a próxima remessa. Graças a Deus, meu hermanito me trouxe da fronteira com o Brasil, e agora sei que posso tomar a dose correta.” O remédio sumiu das farmácias venezuelanas. Quando volta ao mercado, custa um valor que os Santamaria não têm como pagar.
Bem longe dali, no litoral caribenho da Venezuela, outra casta de privilegiados aproveita as delícias da vida luxuosa. “Há dias em que se pode contar sete tons de azul na água”, conta, orgulhoso, o guia do Parque Nacional de Morrocoy. Todos ali dizem que os cayos, pequenas ilhas próximas à costa, têm as praias mais lindas da região. Mas os turistas sumiram. O cenário só não está deserto porque os ricos venezuelanos aparecem nas folgas.
Sob o sol caribenho, eles desfilam iates de 40 pés (12 metros), com capacidade para seis pessoas e autonomia para chegar a Aruba e Curaçao. Essas embarcações podem chegar a custar até 600 mil dólares e são as preferidas dos boliburgueses que curtiam a praia na virada de ano que antecedeu a mais prolongada crise política no país em duas décadas de chavismo.
‘Antes, essas praias eram tomadas de gringos’.
“Não é segredo para ninguém. Essas pessoas conseguem licitações e contratos para negociar produtos do governo e fazem a fortuna que depois é gasta aqui”, relata Pier Gramaglia, italiano radicado há mais de 20 anos na Venezuela e proprietário de uma pousada em Chichiriviche, balneário chique ao lado do Morrocoy.
“Antes, essas praias eram tomadas de gringos, estavam sempre full. Agora, só vêm uns poucos venezuelanos, a maioria deles esses rapazes de 20 e poucos anos que estacionam suas caminhonetes e nem perguntam quanto custa a bebida”, conta Edwin Urbina, dono de duas lojas de conveniência que estavam às moscas em pleno réveillon.
Os apagões na Venezuela colocaram em risco o abastecimento de água potável.
Foto: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images
Pequenos poderes em um país faminto
Nem só de opulência e ostentação vivem os enchufados. Cada pequeno espaço de poder é uma chance de ganhar vantagem e garantir a sobrevivência entre os privilegiados dopaís.
Poucos dias antes do Natal passado, Maduro apareceu em rede de TV para anunciar a distribuição de “20 mil toneladas de pernil”, visando garantir que as 16 milhões de pessoas cadastradas no programa de distribuição de alimentos do governo, o Clap, tivessem o tradicional alimento na ceia. Mas nem mesmo nos bairros mais pobres, como Petare, uma das maiores favelas da América Latina, a promessa foi cumprida. “Já não temos luz, a água vem quando quer e nem mesmo o pernil prometido chegou. Não temos nada”, me disse um mecânico à porta de uma oficina do bairro.
Situação muito distinta da vivida pela família Rodríguez, em Valência, a cerca de 170 quilômetros de Caracas. Na casa do coordenador do Ministério da Educação na cidade – um antigo polo industrial que assistiu à debandada de três grandes montadoras de veículos e uma avalanche de 10 mil trabalhadores desempregados –, o pernil prometido pelo governo chegou inteiro. E com mais de três quilos, importado de um frigorífico de Passo Fundo, no Rio Grande do Sul.
‘Nada en los bolsillos?’, insistiram os soldados.
“A maioria das famílias só teve acesso a um pedaço de carne ou sequer o recebeu. Mas meu pai, por ser filiado ao PSUV (o partido chavista), acabou tendo preferência”, conta, constrangida, a jovem Araima Rodriguez. Aos 33 anos, ela compara sua vida ao filme “Adeus, Lênin!”, onde um filho tenta esconder da mãe que o Muro de Berlim havia ruído.
Declaradamente de oposição ao regime chavista, Rodriguez precisa conter suas opiniões durante a ceia de Natal, que compartilhei a convite da família. Os pais dela são comunistas históricos e francos defensores da revolução bolivariana. “Na situação em que estamos, obviamente não podemos recusar. Mas é assim que as coisas funcionam na Venezuela”, ela me contou, aos sussurros.
Em Petare, uma das maiores favelas da América Latina, a população enfrenta racionamento e escassez de alimentos e combustível.
Foto: Alvaro Andrade/eder content
Enquanto tenta capitalizar apoio interno diante do explícito interesse dos Estados Unidos, do governo brasileiro e de mais de 50 países em sua deposição, Maduro afaga os militares. Durante todo o mês de janeiro, o presidente passou em revista às tropas, participou de exercícios por terra, ar e mar e tentou elevar o moral de seus comandados. O ânimo nos postos de controle da Guarda Nacional Bolivariana espalhados pelas estradas do país, no entanto, está baixo.
A cada 100 quilômetros há pelo menos uma unidade. Ser parado, revistado ou achacado é uma questão de sorte e, após rodar por duas semanas pelo país em ônibus, motos e táxis, enfim chegou a minha vez: faltando menos de 15 quilômetros para entrar no Brasil, no último posto de controle antes da fronteira, o carro em que eu viajava foi abordado.
Ao perceberem a presença de um brasileiro entre os viajantes, imediatamente fui chamado para a revista das bagagens, seguida de um interrogatório. Com os arquivos das entrevistas devidamente escondidos, os militares revisam meu equipamento fotográfico. Sem encontrarem nada, fui levado a uma pequena sala escura e totalmente fechada às margens da rodovia.
“Nada en los bolsillos?”, insistiram dois jovens soldados de fuzil a tiracolo e uma postura intimidatória. Nego por duas vezes e demoro a entender o objetivo. Quando estava quase totalmente sem roupa para a revista, o guarda enfim é mais direto: “É Ano Novo. Não tem nenhum presente para nos deixar? Sabe que a coisa está difícil por aqui”.
Sorri constrangido, desejei-lhes boa sorte e fui embora.
“Eu não sei onde a Fiocruz faz suas pesquisas, mas eles insistem em dizer que não há uma epidemia de drogas no Brasil”, discursou o então ministro do Desenvolvimento Social e Agrário, Osmar Terra, durante audiência pública na Câmara dos Deputados. Era novembro de 2017, e o ministro, hoje titular da pasta da Cidadania, já havia declarado guerra à maior pesquisa sobre consumo de drogas da história do Brasil.
Concluído no final de 2016, o 3º Levantamento Nacional Domiciliar sobre o Uso de Drogas nunca foi divulgado pela Secretaria Nacional de Política de Drogas, a Senad, órgão do Ministério da Justiça responsável por encomendar a pesquisa. A hipótese mais provável, reforçada pela declaração de Osmar Terra, é que o governo federal censurou os números porque eles revelavam o oposto do que a gestão de Michel Temer queria mostrar – e que o governo Bolsonaro continua a sustentar.
O Intercept e a Casa da Democracia tiveram acesso com exclusividade à íntegra do documento. Realizado pela Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, a Fiocruz, instituição ligada ao Ministério da Saúde, o levantamento aponta, por exemplo, que 0,9% da população usou crack alguma vez na vida, 0,3% fez uso no último ano e apenas 0,1% nos últimos 30 dias. No mesmo período, maconha, a droga ilícita mais consumida, foi usada por 1,5%, e a cocaína, por 0,3% dos brasileiros. Pesquisadores ouvidos pela reportagem são unânimes em dizer que, embora preocupantes, os índices estão longe de representar o que o governo, sobretudo na figura de Osmar Terra, insiste em chamar de “epidemia”.
Para o levantamento, a Fiocruz usou a mesma metodologia da Pesquisa Nacional de Amostra Domiciliar, a Pnad, do IBGE, para ouvir 16.273 pessoas em 351 cidades. A amostra é o dobro do penúltimo levantamento nacional, realizado pelo Centro Brasileiro de Informações Sobre Drogas Psicotrópicas em 2005. O novo levantamento mostrou, pela primeira vez, os padrões de consumo dos municípios rurais e da faixa de fronteira do país. E investigou o uso de drogas lícitas – tabaco e cigarro – e ilícitas em dez tipos ou categorias: maconha, haxixe ou skank, cocaína em pó, crack e similares, solventes, ecstasy/MDMA, ayahuasca, LSD, ketamina e heroína, além de estimulantes e anabolizantes.
Gráfico: João Brizzi/The Intercept Brasil
Contratada por meio de um edital de 2015, durante o governo Dilma Rousseff, e concluída no final de 2016, já na gestão Michel Temer, a pesquisa custou cerca de R$ 7 milhões aos cofres públicos. Desde então, seu conteúdo jamais foi revelado – nem mesmo em pedidos feitos via Lei de Acesso à Informação.
“A gente acredita que o embargo tem a ver com o fato de que a pesquisa não confirma a epidemia de crack propalada como bandeira política por certos setores conservadores da política, cujo expoente principal é Osmar Terra”, diz Cristiano Maronna, presidente da Plataforma Nacional de Política de Drogas, rede que articula organizações e pesquisadores da área. Maronna tentou duas vezes acessar o documento via Lei de Acesso à Informação, mas teve os pedidos negados. O deputado federal petista Paulo Teixeira também tentou acessar os dados no ano passado, sem sucesso.
Oficialmente, o governo diz que decidiu embargar o estudo por conta de sua metodologia. Questionado pela reportagem, o Ministério da Justiça e da Segurança Pública diz que a pesquisa “não atendeu aos requisitos do edital” porque não permite “a comparação dos resultados com o primeiro e o segundo levantamentos”. Por isso, a Senad não “detém propriedade intelectual sobre os dados, não os utiliza e não os divulga”, diz o governo, em um e-mail enviado pela assessoria de imprensa.
O governo vem pressionando a Fiocruz a engavetar o estudo e chegou a acionar o Ministério Público Federal, alegando que a fundação não cumpriu os requisitos do edital. Há a expectativa, de acordo com uma fonte que conhece o processo e que pediu para não ser identificada por medo de represálias, que a Senad tente anular o edital, alegando o seu não cumprimento, e peça o reembolso dos R$ 7 milhões. A Fiocruz informou apenas, por e-mail, que o edital tem uma “cláusula que condiciona a utilização do material produzido à anuência da Senad” e que o termo de cooperação se encerrou em 2018. “Neste momento, a Fundação aguarda a anuência da Senad”, disse sua assessoria, por e-mail.
Joga pedra na pesquisa
O levantamento foi encomendado para ajudar o governo a criar políticas brasileiras em relação ao tema. A Fiocruz contratou quase 300 pesquisadores e técnicos, liderados pelo epidemiologista Francisco Inácio Bastos, pós-doutor em saúde pública e autor de mais de 290 artigos. Os resultados foram compilados em um relatório de 520 páginas – inédito até a publicação desta reportagem.
Consultei quatro especialistas em política de drogas para entender os achados do estudo. Chama a atenção, por exemplo, a porcentagem de uso de drogas, muito menor do que alardeia o governo. Usando como exemplo o caso de um hospital no Rio Grande do Sul, Osmar Terra disse que, em 2002, 80% das internações de urgência eram devidas ao uso de álcool; já em 2007, 80% eram causadas pelo crack. “Houve uma subida muito rápida da questão do crack”, ele sentenciou. Mas não é o que diz a pesquisa.“O estudo epidemiológico da Fiocruz é robusto e não mostra epidemia”, diz Luiz Fernando Tófoli, professor da Unicamp que há 20 anos trabalha com saúde mental e uso de drogas.
Mais do que o crack, o problema que salta aos olhos é o uso de álcool. Segundo a pesquisa, 66,4% já fizeram uso de álcool na vida, 43,1% no último ano e 30,1% nos últimos 30 dias – número que vem caindo. Há outros dados preocupantes, como a facilidade para encontrar bebidas alcoólicas e a baixa percepção dos seus riscos. Ao relacionar os tipos de violência consequentes do abuso do álcool, o estudo lista ocorrências variadas, como tentativa de estrangulamento e ameaça com arma de fogo. “Nossa política deveria ser estruturada a partir disso”, diz Maronna.
Gráfico: João Brizzi/The Intercept Brasil
O governo afirma que não é possível comparar a pesquisa com a anterior, de 2005, que abrangeu as 108 maiores cidades do país. A atual pesquisa se estendeu a 351 municípios, mas manteve o recorte das 108 em várias tabelas comparativas ao longo do relatório. Neste estrato, é possível identificar, por exemplo, queda no consumo recente de tabaco — de 18,4%, em 2005, para 14,2%, em 2015 — e de álcool — de 38,3% para 33%.
Também é possível comparar os achados com outras duas pesquisas nacionais independentes, a Lenad 1 e 2, feitas pelo Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia para Políticas Públicas do Álcool e outras Drogas, e com a pesquisa nacional sobre crack, feita em 2014 pela Fiocruz. Os números são coerentes: a Lenad de 2012 mostra que 6,8% dos brasileiros consumiram maconha uma vez na vida; no levantamento atual, são 7,7%. Os que usaram crack uma vez na vida eram 1,3% e hoje são 0,9%.
“Não vejo nada surpreendente. Exceto no caso do álcool e do solvente, que tiveram queda, os outros são números esperados e revelam que o consumo, em geral, se manteve estável”, diz Maurício Fiore, do Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento, o Cebrap, outro pesquisador que analisou a pesquisa a pedido da reportagem. Maronna também não vê revelações “assustadoras”. Segundo ele, “quase 10% ter usado droga ilícita uma vez na vida é um número razoável. Comparado a outros países, não revelam uma situação excepcional ou alarmante”, diz.
Os pesquisadores argumentam que, embora os achados da pesquisa possam ser questionados – e é comum que a comunidade científica faça isso – nada justifica o engavetamento. A Senad poderia ter tornado as informações públicas, mas com ressalvas. “Fica a impressão de que há algum interesse por trás. Se houve erro, a melhor maneira de identificar é debater. É assim que se faz ciência: publica-se e submete-se ao escrutínio dos especialistas”, diz Tófoli.
Uma justificativa para os R$ 153 milhões
Com a troca de governo em janeiro, o embargo da pesquisa, que se arrasta desde 2016, ganhou novos contornos. No dia 19 de março, Osmar Terra e a ministra Damares Alves anunciaram a assinatura de contratos com 216 novas comunidades terapêuticas para tratamento de dependentes químicos, ao custo de R$ 153,7 milhões por ano para 10.883 vagas.
“Elas são decisivas para enfrentar a epidemia das drogas que destrói a nossa juventude, que causa a violência que o país vive e que está se propagando em uma escala gigantesca”, disse Terra na cerimônia. Damares Alves completou: “neste ato, o estado laico reconhece a importância das comunidades religiosas. É o retrato de um novo Brasil”.
Se 1.600.000 dependentes de crack no Brasil não é uma epidemia…eu não sei mais o que é uma epidemia!!
O Brasil possui quase 2 mil comunidades terapêuticas, em sua maioria ligadas a igrejas evangélicas e católicas, segundo um estudo do Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica e Aplicada. Nelas, em geral, o tratamento se baseia em isolamento, trabalho braçal e atividades religiosas. Muitas já foram denunciadas por maus tratos, cárcere privado e outros crimes – caso da Centradeq-Credeq, em Minas Gerais, que o Intercept visitou no final do ano passado. “Essas instituições são a trincheira de resistência à reforma psiquiátrica, violando direitos e ignorando a redução de danos, que, em combinação com a abstinência, apresenta bons resultados”, diz Maronna.
Seu esforço tem resultados. Aos poucos, o modelo de comunidade terapêutica tem se tornado preferência no governo, em detrimento dos Centros de Atendimento Psicossocial, os Caps, do SUS. Até 2017, o país custeava cerca de 2 mil vagas em comunidades. No ano seguinte, com Terra no comando, o número subiu para 6,6 mil. Em 2019, chegam a 10,8 mil leitos, um aumento de quase 50% em um ano.
A pergunta do milhão, ou melhor, dos R$ 153 milhões, suscitada por especialistas em políticas de drogas, é: por que, afinal, tal política pública foi implementada sem levar em conta o que dizem os números da pesquisa da Fiocruz, capaz de balizar decisões sobre quando, quanto, onde e de que forma investir para tratar dependentes? Mais uma vez, a resposta talvez seja: porque os números não dizem o que o governo queria ouvir.
Este texto foi produzido em parceria com o Instituto Casa da Democracia, organização dedicada ao estudo, à elaboração intelectual e à produção cultural em defesa da democracia e de sua promoção.
It’s Friday at dusk on a long stretch of dirt road in Hidalgo County, Texas, about a mile north of the Rio Grande and Mexico. Orange light gleams through a single palm tree towering over hardwood mesquites. Land speculators imported palms to the Rio Grande Valley a century ago to attract white American settlers to the region, and they loom especially high above dense thornscrub below.
I’m walking to my car with Christopher Basaldú, who’s lived in a nearby tent for over a month in anticipation of wall construction along the U.S.-Mexico border. Basaldú, of Brownsville, and about two dozen others formed the Yalui Village campsite on the site of the 19th century-era Eli Jackson Cemetery, a state-designated historical marker in the path of the proposed border barrier. A sign at the entrance of the camp announces the presence of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe (Estók G’na), a reference to groups indigenous to the valley. The occupation began in late January, shortly before Customs and Border Protection said wall construction could begin.
The city of Granjeno, in Hidalgo County, part of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe’s historical land.
Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept
A wave of anxiety crept through the camp the previous night after some campers raised the possibility of Patriot-type paramilitaries storming through. Weeks of intense surveillance by Border Patrol agents, whose green and white vans are constantly encircling the encampment, have also frayed nerves. Basaldú visited Standing Rock at the height of pipeline resistance, and other campers with similar experience have traveled to the valley from Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico.
“People were freaking themselves out around the fire thinking about being shot and killed,” said Basaldú, an adopted member of the tribe. It’s an unlikely possibility, but Basaldú said he personally is ready to die stopping the wall — or tearing it down. Unlike other places in Hidalgo County, including a butterfly center and a historic Catholic chapel, the cemetery on which the camp stands was not exempted from construction by a February border wall funding bill signed by President Donald Trump.
Congress has already sent nearly $3 billion to Trump for a border barrier, including up to 37 miles in Hidalgo and Starr counties. Almost half of that, $1.34 billion, was allocated for the Rio Grande Valley, the compromise outcome of the longest government shutdown in history. Trump then declared a national emergency in February, giving him the power to direct $6.1 billion more from other federal agencies for the wall (though over a dozen state attorneys general are challenging the executive order in court). In March, the government submitted notices of condemnation for hundreds of mostly Hispanic landowners in the valley whose property it wants for the wall.
Earlier in the evening, Basaldú and I sat with two other Valleyites downhill from the earthen levee where the border wall is slated for construction. A Border Patrol agent slowly cruised by, glaring down at us. Under CBP’s plan, the campsite and the cemetery would be stranded in a no man’s land behind the wall, and would be damaged by an enforcement zone resembling a permanent military outpost with a utility road, sensors and cameras, bright lights, and frequent patrols. The agency wants to build 772 total miles of barrier along the border, which it estimates would cost $18 billion.
Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept
“I got to grow up in the valley without the wall, and I see my little cousin who is 1 and has to live with increased militarization,” said Rebekah Hinojosa, a local organizer whose ancestors are buried near an already-built border barrier in Cameron County. “That hurts. Deeply.”
Last year, Hinojosa started working with other local activists to hone anti-wall messaging and convened groups of people to make banners for protests along the wall’s proposed path. She sees this work as part of a growing movement to repel powerful interests encroaching on the valley. Since 2015, she’s also organized to prevent liquified natural gas companies from building a complex of export terminals where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico.
“The LNG fight and border wall fight are very connected,” Hinojosa explained. “Families and friends are going to hearings to stop LNG, they’re organizing to stop the border wall, it’s all part of the same system impacting our region.”
For now, the coalition organizing against the wall is small, especially relative to the full power of the federal government. Much more widespread is a sense that the wall perpetuates a legacy of class and racial subjugation in the valley. Patricia Rubio, an outdoorswoman who sleeps at the camp at least once a week, acknowledged that being from the valley often means carrying several generations’ worth of loss and even shame.
Her aunts and uncles were migrant fieldworkers and “grew up with low self-esteem and fear to express themselves” in Spanish, said Rubio, also an adopted Carrizo/Comecrudo tribal member. “I grew up hearing stories about beatings or lynchings. Those stories need to stay alive and we can’t be ashamed of them.” She feels a sense of responsibility to confront the types of powerful interests that immiserated her ancestors.
The wall’s construction fits into a longer legacy of the valley as a sacrifice zone, which started when Spanish colonists arrived in the 18th century and continued after the U.S. government relegated Mexicans here to second-class American citizenship. Yet for all the suffering the wall is causing locals who feel unheard, for some it’s also producing a sense of groundedness once lost to the dislocations of history.
Photo: Eric Gay/AP
In the Government’s Sights
The notice in the local newspaper taken out by the U.S. Southern District of Texas is 24 pages long and addressed to nearly 300 parties “whose whereabouts cannot be determined or who could not be personally served.” The message for all of them is the same: The government will seize their land “to construct, install, operate, and maintain roads, fencing, vehicle barriers, security lighting, and related structures,” mostly as part of 8 to 12 miles of barrier in Starr County.
It’s the second time the notice has been published in the newspaper; after the third time, defendants will only have 20 days to respond before the government begins taking their property.
Efrén Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, has been advising low-income landowners as the state pursues their land. He’s been in talks with a dozen people interested in litigation and said a nationwide network of pro bono lawyers is preparing to take on more cases.
“These are going to be long, drawn-out battles,” Olivares said. “Eminent domain law is very, very favorable to the government, but even within that, we’re hoping to make sure the government goes through hoops to get the land.”
Earlier, Olivares led a bilingual information session in Roma, a stone’s throw away from Mexico. Olivares explained to a packed room that while federal agents can legally be on private property to patrol for migrants, landowners can charge a fee for surveyors and contractors to be on their land. Some appeared frustrated at these nuances. One man, who did not want to give his name, realized that he’d given surveyors permission to be on his land for 18 months without receiving compensation.
Maria Luisa Cavazos’s land is in the government’s crosshairs. A retired nurse who now lives in McAllen, Cavazos is one of dozens of owners of a 15-acre strip of land in Los Ebanos, a tiny community in Hidalgo County that has been coiled around the river since the 19th century. The land was left to the estate of her late grandmother, Maria Dolores Peña de Flores, and now the feds want 1.2 acres of it to build a road easement through the property.
Cavazos, now an elderly woman, said her family stopped farming the land over 40 years ago, after her father and uncle were hired to pick crops for major agribusinesses. It was fertile, supporting crops like cantaloupes, squash, cotton, and corn. It’s since been mostly vacant, and the federal government began sending letters out to Flores’s descendants in December 2016 asking that they accept a total of $2,900 for the land and waive future appeals. The offer would come out to about $50 of compensation for each descendant.
It’s almost certainly a low-ball offer. An investigation by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune found that the federal government routinely skirted regulations when it paid South Texas landowners during the last round of fence-building under the Bush and Obama administrations. Appraisers for the Army Corps of Engineers were not beholden to certain federal regulations requiring they offer an amount that reflected the land’s true value, including its irrigable and farming capacity. Back then, Cavazos sold a different tract of land to the Department of Homeland Security for just $300. To get more money this time around, she would have to hire a lawyer to do her own independent appraisal, but she’s overwhelmed at the prospect.
“I don’t believe they should take away that land,” Cavazos said on her driveway, her eyes welling with tears as she recounted memories. “When I lived there when I was young, the illegals would knock on your door and ask for food, and if we had leftover food for our supper, my mom would give it to them.”
An RV community on the banks of the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border on Jan. 5, 2017, near Los Ebanos, Texas.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
While federal data shows apprehensions of migrants entering the country without authorization are below historic levels set in the 2000s, they’ve grown since 2000 in CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector, where apprehensions are highest nationally. In Los Ebanos, the river’s banks on the American side can rise several feet high, posing a challenge to people scrambling ashore. Border Patrol agents as well as local and state police are always swarming the village.
Cavazos’s cousin Mirta Trigo also lived in Los Ebanos as a child. Trigo said some of her family members still use the land for Easter celebrations, and she’s more resistant than her relatives about the government’s bid for it. When she received the letter asking her to voluntarily forfeit the property, she didn’t sign it. But she doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer and isn’t expecting to get much more from the federal government.
“I don’t want the wall there, the land is part of us,” Trigo said. “The government doesn’t care what we think, it’s true they don’t listen to us porque we’re the Mexican people, we’re Mexicans.”
Decades of Dispossession
Both Trigo and Cavazos were born in the U.S., but their self-recognition as Mexican speaks to a collective cultural identity that held strong for a century after the Rio Grande Valley became a territory of the U.S. After the 1840s, through a sustained effort spanning decades, Anglo settlers in the valley gained power as bankers, merchants, teachers, and other roles with local influence. “Mexicans,” or Tejanos, were relegated to roles like artisans, laborers, and struggling ranchers.
Starting in the late 19th century, Mexicans who had inherited property through Spanish land grants saw their acreage claims dwindle as they were divided among descendants. Ranchers were dispossessed of their lands by white brokers unwilling to lend them capital, as well as through theft and fraud. Lynch mobs, police, and Texas Rangers later maintained wealth and property lines through brutal violence. A racialized underclass of fieldworkers, enlarged by refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution, became the underpinning of an Anglo-dominated agricultural economy.
Photos: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept
These developments created second-class citizens out of those who had long lived on the land. Schools reinforced this hierarchy, Ramiro Ramírez remembered, punishing him and other small children if they spoke Spanish in class. Today, Ramírez’s family church and two cemeteries in Hidalgo County, once a stop on the Underground Railroad after his ancestors arrived from the Deep South, will be ripped up by the border wall’s planned construction. Unlike the Jackson Ranch and Cemetery, which is located on the same property as the Jackson Ranch Church and only inters Jackson family members and descendants, the Eli Jackson Cemetery down the street became a community burial ground in the last century. Ramírez saw the land grab as part of a long tradition of anti-Mexican racism emanating from the valley’s power structure.
“All the vestiges of your culture, you start to perceive them as being bad, the food, the language, the clothing, the values,” Ramírez said of his upbringing, as he stood inside the endangered historic chapel built by his ancestor Martin Jackson. “We thought we could progress and be in the melting pot, but we couldn’t change the way we looked.”
Having visibly dark skin, or other physical features associated with Indigenous American or African ancestry, can make U.S. citizens in the Rio Grande Valley targets for harassment by border officials. Max Muñoz, the director of operations at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, is an American-born citizen who has been profiled and chased by Border Patrol agents half a dozen times over the last two years. The center, a nature preserve with more than 250 species of butterfly and other wildlife that may be cleaved by the border wall despite congressional protections, has become a nucleus of resistance against its construction.
Once, an agent stopped Muñoz’s truck and demanded to see identification for his two daughters, who were small children. A helicopter was called after Muñoz refused to comply. Another time, an agent warned Muñoz that he was going to “find” and “catch” him in the future. He has stopped taking his family to the center for recreation, opting for nature trips to Austin instead — six hours away.
“I know I shouldn’t, but I don’t want to expose my kids to that,” Muñoz said. “I try not to put racism in their minds, but they see I’m getting stopped. I say [to them], maybe it’s because there’s an order to intimidate people away from the river.”
Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept
The Valley’s Forgotten Tribes
The history of powerful forces uprooting people in the valley stretches back centuries. Conquistadors raided Native communities and enslaved whole families, and later the Spanish empire brought them to Catholic missions to eradicate their tribal identities. Colonization disrupted foodways and brought fatal diseases, increasing some Indigenous peoples’ dependence on the church’s abusive authority. The life-giving lands along the Rio Grande delta once supported at least 31 separate tribes in South Texas and Northeastern Mexico. There’s almost no public memory in the valley of most of them now.
Juan Mancias, the chairman of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe of Texas, who has taken a lead in organizing against the wall, told The Intercept that his grandfather helped him keep his connection to South Texas alive. The Carrizos and Comecrudos, names given by the Spanish, were each comprised of two bands in the valley. There’s nothing in settler historical archives after 1825 about the Carrizos as a distinct group, and the last known fluent speakers of the Comecrudean language were recorded near Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, in 1886.
Mancias, 64, grew up in the Texas panhandle after his ancestors moved there for work. He believes many in the valley have Carrizo and Comecrudo heritage, but after centuries of cultural genocide by the Catholic church and two settler nations, there’s little way to confirm it except oral history that isn’t extensively recorded. “It would have been lost for me if I hadn’t asked my grandfather what was really happening, or my older cousins and aunts and uncles, or my mom, who is 94,” Mancias said.
Without a land base, the tribe has had to ally with property owners in the wall’s path. In January, Mancias started connecting with the Butterfly Center, Ramiro Ramírez of the Eli Jackson Cemetery, and Fred Cavazos (no relation to Maria), owner of 77 riverside acres in Madero, who has been featured in The Intercept, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic. With the Ramírez family’s permission, the Carrizo/Comecrudo have occupied the Eli Jackson Cemetery and more recently started an encampment at the Butterfly Center; Cavazos said that Mancias has a key to his property to set up a possible third resistance camp in the future.
The Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe is not recognized by the federal government, but is a voluntary association registered as a nonprofit to collect and administer funds. The tribe held a fundraiser in early March, and a GoFundMe page overseen by Mancias brought in more than $20,000 over the last two years — the result of tenacious social media boosting. The donations fund the tribe’s activism, which has produced impressive results: In 2017, Mancias traveled to France with other local activists to confront BNP Paribas over the bank’s liquified natural gas investments in the valley. The bank divested shortly thereafter.
“Everything we get, we put it back into the tribe,” Mancias said. “Our profit is to make people know we’re here and we’re not going anywhere. We’re on our lands, and that’s the only radical thing we’re trying to do.”
Recently, Mancias accompanied Ramiro Ramírez and his sister, Sylvia, to a local restaurant where they met with Raul Ortiz, the chief of CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector. According to Sylvia Ramírez, Ortiz assured the group that the government would not seize their land for at least six months, and possibly not for a year. (A media spokesperson for CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector did not respond to emails and phone calls from The Intercept to confirm this account.)
“I’m assuming they’re telling us what they know, and they’re not pulling a fast one,” Sylvia conceded. “I’m going to give them that until I know differently.” She said her family had been “very appreciative” of the Carrizo/Comecrudo encampment, which had no plans to disband at publication time despite Ortiz’s longer timeline.
On March 14, attorneys with the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice filed a joint lawsuit against Trump and administration officials on behalf of the Ramírez family and the tribe, as well as several other plaintiffs. It asks a federal judge to strike down the national emergency declaration and enjoin the president from using emergency funds to build the wall.
Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept
A History That Needs to Be Told
Sitting around a smoldering mesquite log at Yalui Village one Sunday afternoon, several young men played prayer music from a phone and smoked cigarettes. Their discussion turned to peyote, whose cacti buttons produce a medicinal hallucinogenic effect and were once found in abundance in South Texas prior to the war on drugs. A peyote button is on the seal of the Carrizo/Comecrudo. At its center is the Aplomado Falcon, an endangered bird found in the region.
A flag bearing the seal of the American Indian Movement — the Indigenous liberation group started in 1968 — flaps in the wind, alongside flags of the Carrizo/Comecrudo and the Texas-based Society of Native Nations. Nearby, a camper served chili to others out of a large grease pan. The camp’s kitchen, mostly composed of several coolers and cooking equipment underneath yellow tarp, had recently been visited by a pack of wild boars. Clouds of insects are omnipresent, and field mice are innumerable enough that someone brought a cat to hunt them down.
Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept
The valley is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the country, but pressures from human settlement have destroyed 95 percent of its natural habitat. Last October, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen waived 25 laws under the 2005 Real ID Act, including protections for endangered species and migratory birds, to expedite the wall’s construction. A study by Stanford University researchers found that 34 percent of ground and freshwater animals living along the U.S.-Mexican border would have their habitats bisected by the barrier, leading to possible extinction for some.
Nielsen also waived laws meant to protect Native American grave sites and other spiritual lands, which only apply to tribes the government recognizes. All others, including the Carrizo/Comecrudo, are at the mercy of the settler state as voluntary associations without special protections, but Mancias says that lacking official recognition can be liberating. Without any blood quantum requirements to limit tribal membership, for example, the tent for the Carrizo/Comecrudo can be as wide as the tribe wants it to be.
The people buried at the Eli Jackson Cemetery, who lie for eternity near where the campers sleep for now, may not be directly related to Mancias, but his conception of relations is broad enough to consider everything with roots in the land to be a relative. “There’s a history that needs to be told,” Macias said. “It’s not about them recognizing if we’re Indian, it’s that we recognize if we’re Indian.”
Among the Trump-Russia investigation’s many loose ends, one stands out: the Trump Tower Moscow project and the conflicting statements from President Donald Trump and his former advisers about their attempts to complete a lucrative business deal in Russia in the midst of the 2016 election.
Sater’s story is a familiar plotline in the Trump-Russia narrative: An opportunistic ex-con ingratiates himself into the Trump Organization, landing a rent-free office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, then brokers connections between the future president, Trump’s family and company, and Russian elites, eventually including the Kremlin. When the unbecoming details of Sater’s past — his secret prosecution, his ties to organized crime — come to light, the president disavows their relationship.
The less familiar story is how Sater got here, and how his path to the center of the current political scandal was enabled and, arguably, abetted by some of the same people who went on to work in the special counsel’s office. The government has acknowledged Sater’s long-running cooperation and he has spoken publicly about his purported role in obtaining Osama bin Laden’s phone numbers before 9/11, identifying a North Korean official seeking to buy nuclear weapons technology from the Russians, and helping to disrupt an assassination plot on former Secretary of State Colin Powell in Afghanistan.
But the details and terms of Sater’s agreement with the government remain largely secret, contained in sealed court filings submitted in his 20-year-old criminal case. (Last month, The Intercept sought the unsealing of some of these materials, including his cooperation agreement. Judge Leo Glasser ordered both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Sater’s counsel to respond by April 8.)
Sater may have remained in the shadows, but long before special counsel Robert Mueller’s report found that the Trump campaign had not colluded with the Russian government, his name emerged in what seemed — on its face — to be direct evidence of such an effort.
“I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Sater famously wrote in a November 2015 email to Michael Cohen, then Trump’s personal attorney, that was first published in the New York Times. “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it…I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
That wasn’t collusion, Sater told The Intercept in an interview last week. “It’s called marketing. It’s giving both sides what they want.”
Photo: Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Eventually, Sater was called in to explain that to the prosecutors in Mueller’s office. While he declined to discuss the details of that interview, he did describe an exchange with Andrew Weissmann, one of Mueller’s senior prosecutors, during the meeting.
“What the hell is it with these emails?” Weissmann asked, according to Sater. “You really know how to be on the front page, don’t you, Felix?”
If Weissmann’s tone sounds casual and even jocular, it might be because the two men have known each other for 20 years. Weissmann supervised the 1998 stock fraud case that originally brought Sater into the government’s orbit as a cooperator. He is not the only member of Mueller’s team who goes way back with Sater. FBI Special Agent William McCausland who worked on former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s prosecution, handled Sater as early as 2003, after he became an informant. (“One of the hardest-working and best FBI agents I’ve ever worked with,” Sater said of McCausland.) Other former Eastern District prosecutors who were detailed to the special counsel include Zainab Ahmad and Greg Andres, who served as chief of the office’s criminal division at the time Sater was sentenced.
Peter Carr, the spokesperson for the special counsel’s office, declined to comment.
Sater’s history as an informant who worked with members of the special counsel’s team, coupled with his position at the center of the Trump-Russia story, raises the question of whether the Russia investigation was, ultimately, a circular exercise. Could Mueller’s investigation have been avoided — or dramatically narrowed in scope — had federal prosecutors not cut Sater a secret deal in 1998 but, instead, prosecuted him?
This sort of hypothetical-in-hindsight may not sit well with members of Sater’s prosecution team, all but one of whom declined to speak to The Intercept for this story. The only exception, former Eastern District prosecutor and now New York state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, said it’s unfair to suggest that law enforcement officials should have anticipated Sater’s involvement in a political scandal implicating the president.
“I think it would be very difficult to tell an FBI agent or a prosecutor in, let’s say, 2002, knowing what you know about Sater — that he’s a savvy businessman, that’s he’s a stock defrauder, that he stabbed someone in the face with a martini glass — and have them say, ‘You know what, I don’t think we should get this information on Al Qaeda, because one day this guy is going to be in the middle of an international conspiracy that goes to the highest level [of government],’” Kaminsky said.
For his part, Sater told The Intercept he didn’t play any role in investigations into Trump, before, during, or after the election. “The FBI has never asked me to provide information about the Trump Organization or Donald Trump at any time,” he said. “There was never any connection with me from my case and the Trump investigation other than during interviews with Mueller.”
Sater also said he never used his role as a senior advisor to Trump to carry out law enforcement work. Though, he would not say whether he signed an “otherwise illegal activity” — an authorization from the Department of Justice to violate the law in the context of an investigation — which, in some instances, requires review by the director of the FBI. (Mueller was FBI director from 2001 until 2013, when Sater was cooperating with the bureau.)
Sater also took exception to questions about whether he’d ever been approached by a foreign intelligence agency while acting as a government informant. “Where do you think I got half this shit from? From a dentist?” he said. “Was I ever the subject of them trying to turn me? Who knows.”
The Trump Moscow project, he said, was a straight-ahead real estate deal. “I’m telling you, believe it or not, investigate it or not, there was no intelligence component to me trying to do a Trump Tower,” Sater said. “I’m a businessman. I’m a developer. I saw an opportunity. I went for it. It’s not right. It’s not wrong. It’s just what it is.”
Yet nothing is ever quite as it seems with Felix Sater. He’s been called a spy, a stock cheat, a real estate developer, a gangster, a Russian, an American patriot.
Twenty years ago, federal prosecutors saw him in more practical terms: as someone they could work with.
Photo: Ariel Zambelich/The Intercept
The Art of the Deal
Sater’s cooperation did not occur in a vacuum. In the early winter of 1998, a group of federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York faced a perennial question: Do we prosecute this guy? Or do we cut him a deal?
Sater was a 31-year-old ex-con, a Russian Jewish emigre who’d served a year in state prison for an assault stemming from a fight in a bar. That made for an unremarkable pedigree in their jurisdiction. He appeared to have graduated from his state-court felony to a sprawling federal white-collar conspiracy in which he was accused of defrauding retirees, including at least two Holocaust survivors, out of millions, according to court filings.
The allegations against Sater alone made him a good target for prosecutors. Financial crime was a growing racket for the Italian Mafia and Sater was at the center of it. He said he could help penetrate a criminal underworld otherwise closed off to the FBI: the mob’s growing presence on Wall Street. (“When you grow up in Brooklyn and Staten Island, everybody knows a guy,” he told The Intercept.) Sater was savvy, capable, and connected — an ideal cooperator. Two decades later, those same qualities would put him at the center of the Trump-Russia story.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York had made its name flipping criminals, most notably Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the Gambino family deputy who testified against John Gotti in 1992. After three acquittals, Brooklyn prosecutors finally secured a conviction against Gotti — and a life term in prison. Gravano had a hand in 19 murders, but he received time served for his testimony. His deal is a case study in the stark moral logic underlying cooperation agreements: a lesser evil for a greater good. The Eastern District would go on to apply that logic to devastating effect against New York’s five Mafia families throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
Former FBI Special Agent Leo Taddeo, the first agent to work with Sater, described the office’s culture of cooperation as “healthy.”
“The Eastern District does the government’s business and it does it really well,” Taddeo said. “And part of that business is entering into cooperation agreements every day.”
As the office branched out into national security cases after the September 11 attacks, criminal cooperation agreements took on an even more complex moral dimension. Prosecutors continued to successfully recruit cooperating witnesses in terrorism cases, even though the cooperators had in some cases been enemies of the state.
One such witness, Bryant Neal Vinas, a Long Island man who joined Al Qaeda, provided key intelligence and testimony on the terror group’s operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a 2015 case against three al-Shabaab members, prosecutors relied on the testimony of a man who helped plan and execute the 2010 World Cup bombings in Kampala, Uganda, which killed 70 people, including Nate Henn, a 25-year-old NGO worker from North Carolina, and injured six Americans and scores of others. The key witness, Mugisha Mohamoud, had served five years in prison in Kenya after confessing to his role in the attack and was living there when he testified. The U.S. has not publicly charged Mohamoud or extradited him. The three al-Shabaab defendants pleaded guilty and were sentenced in 2016.
Photo: Stephen Voss/Redux
“No Task Was Too Big”
Within this context, Felix Sater presented a relatively straightforward profile as a cooperator. He hadn’t committed any death penalty-eligible offenses and, by his own account, he was contrite and eager to do the right thing. The Justice Department’s official position on Sater is that his value as a cooperator far outweighed any liabilities. It also implicitly outweighed concerns over his potential for recidivism. At Sater’s sentencing in 2009 — 11 years after he first surrendered — then-prosecutor Kaminsky told the judge: “Felix Slater was one of the best cooperators we worked with. There was nothing he wouldn’t do. No task was too big. He was really helpful and was the key to open a hundred different doors that they couldn’t open prior to that time.”
Sater had hired two former Eastern District prosecutors to represent him at that hearing, Leslie Caldwell and Kelly Moore. Both had worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office at the time he became a cooperator. Caldwell, who went on to become an assistant attorney general in the Obama administration, had represented the government in an early appearance in one of the stock fraud cases for which Sater provided information.
“I’m hesitant to use the word redemption, but I think it fits Mr. Sater,” Caldwell told the judge at the sentencing. “I think he has redeemed himself.” She explained that Sater had developed such a close relationship with the FBI that he had been traveling freely to Russia as part of his real estate business for 10 years without being required to report those trips to his handlers, as is generally required for informants. Caldwell closed her remarks on Sater’s character with a prediction. She told the judge that Sater is “not going to appear before this court or any other court again in the context of a criminal case.”
Neither Caldwell nor Moore responded to requests for comment.
The prosecutors involved in Sater’s original case have since risen to some of the top positions in federal law enforcement. Loretta Lynch, who served as U.S. attorney in Brooklyn during his cooperation, became attorney general under President Barack Obama. Caldwell and Weissmann went on to lead the Enron task force before rising to even more senior positions, with Caldwell serving as assistant attorney general for the criminal division and Weissmann running the department’s fraud section. Weissmann also served under Mueller at the FBI. When his former boss was appointed special counsel, Weissmann joined what became known as the Mueller investigation.
Their career success may have little to do with Sater’s cooperation, yet the two cannot be entirely disentangled. During her 2015 confirmation, when asked about Sater, Lynch said that he provided “information crucial to national security and the conviction of over 20 individuals, including those responsible for committing massive financial fraud and members of La Cosa Nostra.”
At Sater’s 2009 sentencing, Glasser chose not to give him prison time, even though the RICO statute exposed him to a potential 25-year sentence. Glasser instead imposed a $25,000 fine and told Sater, “The extent of your cooperation over all of those years clearly manifests that you have a very sincere and deep respect for the law.”
Fifteen years earlier, it was Glasser who had sentenced Gravano to time-served.
Glasser, who is 94, still hears cases in the Eastern District; he declined to comment.
A Lesser Evil
Cooperation agreements are, by their very nature, transactional, and in the lesser-evil-for-the-greater-good formulation, Sater appeared to more than live up to his end of the bargain. Last year, in preparation for closed testimony before the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, he provided Congress a bulleted list of 23 examples of his intelligence and investigative work, according to a statement obtained by BuzzFeed. By his own account, Sater was an operative of superhero proportions — someone who could cobble together a team of former Spetsnaz mercenaries to hunt bin Laden while unraveling terrorist financing schemes and also building his own intelligence network of spooks around the world, all without receiving compensation from the government. The breadth of his self-described activities suggests an uncanny understanding of the various markets for information in the U.S. government’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Most of Sater’s claims have so far proven impossible to independently verify. One former intelligence official who worked with the FBI’s New York office, but didn’t have direct knowledge of Sater’s cooperation, voiced skepticism.
“Somebody who claims to have done all that he has screams bullshit,” the official said. “It sounds like he took the FBI for a ride.”
So what did Sater get for his cooperation? His freedom, for one. In addition to the $25,000 fine, Sater forfeited a home in the Hamptons, but he did not spend a single night in jail. More important, Sater retained his identity. Judges and federal prosecutors agreed to conceal his charges and eventual conviction. His plea agreement required him to plead guilty to a single count in a racketeering indictment but, in a legal but entirely opaque practice favored by prosecutors the Eastern District, he did so in secret and under a false name. Even the courtroom was sealed, with reporters, the public, and — had they shown up — the victims of Sater’s fraud barred from entering the hearing.
Unlike a cooperator who testifies in a public trial, Sater was never subjected to the adversarial system of justice. He was, in effect, represented by the government in both the prosecution and the defense. And with the press shut out of the closed proceedings, there was no one with an incentive to impeach his credibility or question the government’s version of events.
In the eyes of the justice system, Sater was a two-time felon with links to both the Italian and Russian mobs who had been convicted of sophisticated financial crimes. While there was public information on his assault conviction, there was no public record on his conviction in the Eastern District. When Sater met Manhattan celebrity real estate developer Donald Trump in 2002, he appeared to be little more than a 38-year-old former Wall Street prodigy from Shearson Lehman trying to reinvent himself in New York real estate.
Photo: Mark Von Holden/WireImage
To work effectively with the Trump Organization, Sater leveraged the two assets he’d secured from the Eastern District: his freedom and his identity. After September 11, he joined Bayrock, a real estate venture operating out of Trump Tower. There, Sater developed a working relationship with Trump, appearing at groundbreaking ceremonies and hosting Donald Jr. and Ivanka on a 2006 trip to Moscow — where he boasted in an email to Michael Cohen that he “arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins [sic] private chair.” As a political refugee who fled anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Sater saw his relationship with Russia as all business.
“I’ve never been Russian in my life. I’m an American Jew who happened to have had the misfortune of being born in Moscow,” he said. “I went there to make money. I speak Russian. I can take advantage of an extra edge.”
Sater’s signature project with the Trump Organization, Trump Soho, also broke ground in 2006. The next year, Trump discussed a potential Trump Moscow project during a deposition in a libel case. Throughout this period, Sater remained under a secret indictment in the Eastern District, awaiting sentencing.
But as Sater struggled to get Trump Moscow off the ground, he discovered a problem with the Trump brand, he told The Intercept.
“It had no value,” he said. “They didn’t want to pay Trump the licensing fee because they’re like, ‘Who the hell is Trump in Russia? Who knows him?’”
The solution materialized nearly a decade later when Trump’s 2016 campaign began to get traction, Sater said.
“When he started running and he started saying good shit about Putin and Putin started saying good shit about him and he started to get great ink in Russia, I was like, ‘Perfect,’” Sater said. “This is probably a perfect opportunity to get a Trump Tower Moscow done.”
The potential conflicts of interest triggered by a leading presidential candidate doing a secret multimillion-dollar business deal with help from a foreign power didn’t concern him.
“I wasn’t running,” Sater said. “I don’t need to worry about the morality of, ‘should a candidate be involved in business?’”
He dismissed any notion that the deal “was trying to give leverage to the Russians so they could Manchurian candidate our president. I was trying to make money.”
Sater wasn’t the only one, he said. The Trump Organization planned a global expansion after the election, which Trump and everyone around him assumed that he would lose.
“They were sitting there thinking about the 27 towers and the 27 different places they were going to build after the election,” he said. “Do you honestly think they were sitting there and saying ‘Who’s going to get the West Wing and who’s going to get the East Wing?’”
The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.
Several hours into Cohen’s public appearance before the House Oversight and Reform Committee last month, Sater’s name surfaced in questions from Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif., Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. The members of Congress focused on Trump’s relationship with Sater — and the president’s public statements denying that he knew the man who had been a close associate for a decade.
Sater could not explain why Trump has disavowed him but said he was “disappointed.” The White House declined to comment.
The president’s former business associate was not surprised that the special counsel appeared to clear the Trump campaign of any conspiracy with Russia.
“Let me tell you this way: If I knew of even the slightest instance of anybody in the United States colluding with Russia, I’d be in the offices of the FBI in about three minutes,” Sater said. “You know that I know where to go.”
It was just after 4 a.m. on August 4, 2017, when a charcoal-gray Nissan Frontier pulled up to the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota.
A slender young man with glasses and a mustache got out carrying a sledgehammer. His accomplice, a pudgy man with a dimpled chin and a wide gap between his two front teeth, followed carrying a black powder bomb.
As the second man, 29-year-old Michael McWhorter, would later tell the FBI, they had a message for the mosque’s worshippers: “You’re not welcome here. Get the fuck out.”
The man with the sledgehammer, 22-year-old Joe Morris, used it to smash one of the mosque’s windows. McWhorter then raised his hand to hurl the bomb. As he did, he saw a man inside the house of worship. Their eyes met as McWhorter released the explosive. He and Morris ran back to the truck, where another man waited behind the wheel. They sped off into the night.
“We were long gone before it went off,” McWhorter later told the FBI.
No one was hurt in the bombing, but the mosque was badly damaged. President Donald Trump and his aides refused to condemn the attack. Sebastian Gorka, then a deputy assistant to Trump, suggested that it could have been a false flag operation carried out by leftists but designed to make right-wing extremists look responsible.
Gorka’s skepticism appears to have been misplaced. Seven months later, the FBI and local police descended on Clarence, Illinois, a tiny ramshackle community surrounded by wind turbines, and arrested McWhorter, Morris, and two others – McWhorter’s stepson Ellis “EJ” Mack and Michael Hari, the man who had driven the getaway car — for their roles in the bombings of the Minnesota mosque and a women’s clinic in Illinois. McWhorter and Mack told the FBI that Hari was the group’s leader.
Moultrie County Sheriff deputies transport Michael McWhorter to the Federal Courthouse in Urbana, Ill., on March 21, 2018.
Photo: Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette via AP.
Hari had much in common with alleged domestic extremists like Cesar Sayoc Jr., Taylor Michael Wilson, and Robert Bowers, who appear to have been influenced by Trump’s promotion of xenophobia and nativism. He and fellow members of his small, violent group, the White Rabbit Three Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia, wanted to return the United States to a simpler, less progressive era through bombings and armed resistance, according to his manifesto. Hari’s bizarre life story — involving a troubled marriage, antiquated and austere religious observances, and finally an embrace of bigotry and violence — illustrates how our increasingly divisive, conspiracy-laden culture isn’t creating terrorists so much as pushing troubled people toward extremism and violence.
Hari was drawn to Trump as a candidate because Trump wanted to put American culture in reverse, friends and family members told The Intercept. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan spoke to the nativism favored by Hari and some other conservative Christians, and fueled simmering hatred of a changing culture they struggled to understand — one in which women were empowered, gender could be fluid, a black man was president, and Christianity wasn’t necessarily a cornerstone belief.
Donald Trump wears his “Make America Great Again” hat at a rally in Sacramento, Calif., on June 1, 2016.
Photo: Jae C. Hong, File/AP.
“This whole Donald Trump movement caught a lot of us,” said a man who knew Hari through their shared religious observance but asked not to be identified because he didn’t want to be associated with Hari’s alleged crimes. “Anybody with a fundamentalist mindset has this ‘we-have-to-keep-our-ways, this-way-is-threatened’ mentality. They look at Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and it’s a lot of what they’re saying.”
“I don’t think Trump’s rhetoric is getting people to commit violence,” the man continued. “It’s not like he’s saying, ‘Go bomb a mosque!’ I think it’s subtler. I think he’s flipping the switch in certain people. And I think he flipped that switch in Michael Hari.”
In this July 2017 booking photo released by the Ford County Sheriff’s Office, Michael Hari is seen on an assault charge.
A Gradual Drift Toward Extremism
Michael Hari was born in Berlin in 1971 while his father was stationed there with the Air Force. He moved to Paxton, Illinois, with his parents and his younger brother when he was a boy. A rural corn and soybean farming community, Paxton is the seat of Ford County, which is shaped like the letter L and known as Illinois’s staunchest Republican county. In most elections, Libertarian Party candidates get more votes in Ford County than Democrats — when there is even a Democrat on the ballot.
In 1990, when Hari was 19, he married Michelle Lee Frakes, who hoped to become a school teacher. Two years later, they moved to Lampasas County, Texas, so Hari could study psychology at the University of Central Texas, now known as Texas A&M – Central Texas.
During Hari’s first year in Texas, David Koresh, the self-appointed prophet of a Christian sect known as the Branch Davidians, was gaining national attention. Law enforcement officials suspected Koresh of polygamy and child sexual abuse. Koresh’s group entered into a standoff with the federal government at a compound in Waco, about 100 miles from where Hari lived. Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, suspecting that Koresh and his followers had illegal weapons, tried to raid the compound in February 1993, leading to a shootout that killed four federal agents and six Branch Davidians. The FBI then surrounded Koresh’s compound in a 51-day standoff. Hari was deeply sympathetic to Koresh’s cause and viewed the standoff and later siege as the acts of a tyrannical government that did not respect religious liberty. He was among those who protested against the government in Waco. Some protesters at the time held up signs that read, “Is your church ATF approved?”
Hari’s support for Koresh was partly influenced by his own religious transformation. While in Texas, he began reading about the Old German Baptist Brethren, a conservative branch of Anabaptism whose members dress in a fashion similar to the Mennonites and the Amish: bearded men in pants, long-sleeved shirts, and fedoras and women in loose-fitting, long-sleeved, ankle-length dresses with bonnets covering their hair.
In Texas, Hari and Frakes had two daughters, but their marriage was tumultuous. Frakes took issue with what she saw as Hari’s oppressive and patriarchal religious beliefs. “I’m supposed to bow down to you,” Frakes once told him. “I can’t do it.”
Photo : Trevor Aaronson/The Intercept.
In 1995, Frakes returned to Illinois with their daughters. Hari followed, landing a job as a deputy at the Ford County Sheriff’s Office, but the couple couldn’t mend their marriage. Frakes filed for divorce, beginning what would be a messy, yearslong dispute. One daughter accused Hari of sexually abusing her, but a court found that she had been coached. Frakes and Hari eventually reconciled, and the divorce proceedings were dropped.
Hari left the Ford County Sheriff’s Office in 1997, opened a gun store in Paxton, and tried his hand at politics. He ran for local sheriff unsuccessfully in 1998 as a Libertarian and a year later lost a race for a Paxton City Council seat. Hari won enough public recognition in those campaigns to be appointed to the Ford County Board of Review, which hears appeals of property tax assessments, but he resigned in 2000, halfway through his two-year term. “My church is against involvement in politics,” Hari told the local newspaper, the News-Gazette, at the time. “I’m 100 percent in favor of being against that. I don’t have any interest in getting involved in politics again.”
By then, Hari had become even more religiously devout, which caused more problems for his marriage. He had stripped the family’s home in Clarence, Illinois, of most vestiges of modern life. There was no electricity, just kerosene lamps for light and a wood-burning stove for heat. Frakes didn’t want to live like that, she wrote in court filings. New child abuse allegations surfaced against Hari, only to be dismissed as not credible by an administrative law judge with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Hari filed for divorce in February 2001 and won sole custody of his two daughters. At the time, a therapist noted Hari’s “somewhat unconventional religious beliefs” but found “no conflict with good parenting principles.”
Over the next four years, Hari and Frakes argued in court proceedings over parenting and education decisions. One of their daughters, Mollie, then 14, often missed school and was diagnosed with agoraphobia. Hari made her wear long dresses and bonnets. Frakes alleged that Mollie’s behavioral problems were rooted in her having to straddle modern culture in school and her father’s conservative religious beliefs at home.
Halfway through the school year in 2004, Mollie had missed 50 percent of her scheduled days. In April 2005, Frakes requested an emergency custody hearing, arguing that Hari had failed to keep the kids in public school. Hari didn’t show up. Instead, he left the country, taking his two daughters with him.
Photo obtained by The Intercept.
Austerity in Fountain Creek
Hari took Mollie and her younger sister, Alleen, to Belize, where Hutterites, an Anabaptist sect similar to the Mennonites, had established a community. Back in Illinois, prosecutors charged him with felony child abduction.
Desperate to reunite with her daughters, Frakes turned to psychologist Phil McGraw, best known as the host of the TV talk show “Dr. Phil.” As part of a 2006 episode intended to reunite the family and offer counseling, the show hired Harold Copus, a former FBI agent, to track down Hari and the girls. Copus learned of the Hutterite community in Belize, and he and a film crew traveled there.
“It was like stepping back into the 1800s,” Copus recalled in an interview with The Intercept. “Everything’s horse-driven, no electricity, no modern conveniences whatsoever.”
Copus met with the community’s elders and explained that Hari did not have his ex-wife’s permission to take the girls out of the country. Copus then was shown to the house where Hari and his daughters were living. “It was a piece of crap,” Copus remembered.
Nearly a year after they left the United States, Hari agreed that he and his daughters would accompany Copus on a flight to Florida, where they filmed an episode of “Dr. Phil” that reunited Hari’s daughters with their mother. Hari then stood trial for child abduction in Illinois, where Frakes urged the court to send him to prison. “He believes his freedom of religion allows him to break the law,” Frakes told the court. Hari was found guilty and sentenced to 30 months of probation.
He began to self-publish books and essays linked together by the notion that modernity has ruined American culture and family life. He blamed significant changes in public opinion about same-sex marriage on “nothing more than 20 years of campaigning by the secular global elite,” and predicted that same-sex marriage would soon create widespread social unrest in the United States. Hari believed that Americans had begun to accept same-sex marriage because churches had started to condone a “hedonistic view of marriage” between men and women that allowed for the pursuit of materialism and sexual pleasure at the expense of having children. In Hari’s view, changing attitudes about marriage, coupled with growing secularism nationwide, had ushered in an era when couples have fewer children and instead feed their “carnal desire for a higher standard of living.” In Hari’s view, Christianity, and the United States by extension, faced three enemies: the so-called global secular elite, Islam, and what he termed “false Christianity.” Hari viewed the “global secular elite” as an organized and unified cabal, and referred to it by the acronym “GSE.”
“To truly be more than conquerors, let us lay every other weapon aside, and turn our efforts to seizing the education of children away from the GSE,” Hari wrote. “Let us consider Islam to be a problem that we as Christians are equipped to handle. Let us confront every sin, false religion and heresy that we see with patient rebuke. Let us esteem other men better than ourselves, and go into battles as the Christians of old did, until we have cast down the devil’s strongholds and made every enemy our Savior’s friend. And then we will be more than conquerors.”
Hari came to see the social degradation all around him. He wrote about a case he helped investigate as a sheriff’s deputy in 1997, when the skulls of local town pioneers James and Elizabeth Jones were stolen by a group of people in their late teens and early 20s. Hari described the group as “cultists” and wrote that their crime was fueled by their use of marijuana and LSD. Instead of seeing them as young people experimenting with drugs and stealing remains for whatever ridiculous reason they thought justified their actions, Hari viewed the group and their behavior as symptomatic of a declining society that had wrongly embraced modernity and multiculturalism.
“What can we learn ultimately from this story?” Hari asked in his book’s final pages. “I would say that the culture and society that produced the [Joneses] is superior to the one we have now. Those cultists were products of the progressive movement. That is what it generates.”
Starting in the mid-2000s, Hari, who at the time was still apolitical, began to believe firmly that if the United States could not change, people like him would have to form new, independent communities grounded in conservative moral and religious beliefs. These communities would be more agrarian and communal, the way America once had been, at least in Hari’s mind. In 2006, he wrote a short manifesto titled “Fountain Creek.” Building on his experience in Belize, he espoused the creation of an Old German Baptist Brethren community founded on three principles: the “common purse,” in which the community pools its money; using simple tools, such as a horse-drawn plow instead of a tractor; and performing hard labor to produce food. Hari distributed and promoted his manifesto throughout the Anabaptist communities in the United States, then set off to put his ideas into practice. He leased a small farm outside Zaragoza, Mexico, a poor agricultural community about 60 miles south of Del Rio, Texas, where he planned to start his new society. Google Maps still labels the farm in Mexico as “Fountain Creek Old German Baptist Brethren.”
The property was in disrepair; drug cartels had used part of the farm as a burning pit for bodies. Hari went there with Joe Morris, the man who would allegedly smash the Minnesota mosque’s window with a sledgehammer. Growing up in Illinois, Morris had shuffled between foster parents and grandparents before Hari had taken him to a horse-and-buggy community in Kentucky to be raised, according to people who knew both men. To Morris — who would later become part of the White Rabbit Three Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia — Hari was something of a father figure.
Only one other family joined Hari and Morris at Fountain Creek. The patriarch, the affable man who blamed Trump’s rhetoric for Hari’s radicalization, said he’d dreamed of a simpler life and was enticed by Hari’s manifesto. He and his family joined Hari in Mexico in 2013. They stayed only 12 days, after discovering that Hari had embellished his descriptions of the farm.
“Every promise was broken,” the man said. “The ranch was in disrepair. It was a mess. When we left, it was pretty much just him.”
Hari gave the man a hard time for leaving, saying that he was not living up to his obligations to the nascent community. But a short while later, Hari himself abandoned Fountain Creek and returned with Morris to Illinois. He and the man who had left kept in touch. After Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, the man said that Hari’s views grew increasingly radical. Hari’s fervent support for Trump also put him at odds with his church, which advocated for political neutrality.
“People like Michael Hari, they’re not so big on ideology as much as they are on the feeling of rightness,” the man said. “In his mind, Mike could be right about being a pacifist and he could also feel like he’s right about blowing up a mosque. People like you and me, it never runs through our mind — blow up a mosque. It’s extremism. Whatever Mike did, it had to be extreme. He was always in rebellion. If you go back to 2016, think about where he was in life. His farm idea had failed; he had taken a shot to his pride there. And then here comes Donald Trump telling everyone, ‘Let’s make America great again.’ To Michael Hari, Trump was a righteous cause.”
Michael Hari started a company called Crisis Resolution Security Services to apply as a contractor to build President Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.- Mexico border. This is the video Hari produced as part of his application to the Department of Homeland Security. Video: Youtube
“Build the Wall”
Hari didn’t just back Trump’s policies; he also wanted to help bring them to fruition. Back in Illinois after the failure of Fountain Creek, he leased a rundown former grain elevator on Main Street in Clarence, a short distance from his home off a narrow, poorly paved road. He used the building as an office and let Morris live there. Together, they formed the nucleus of the White Rabbit Three Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia.
The goal of Hari’s organization was to return the United States to “the good old days” through bombings and armed resistance, according to a 38-page document he began selling on Amazon in 2017 called “The White Rabbit Handbook.” The book and YouTube videos Hari posted describe his group’s militancy as a response to corruption in Illinois state government and a means of supporting Trump’s secret battle to remove bad actors from the so-called deep state.
“If you’re dissatisfied with how things are going in this country, you’re already a White Rabbit,” Hari said in a video he posted online in March 2018. “You’re in pretty good company, because about 60 to 70 percent of the people right now in this country think it’s on the wrong track. Whether you love Trump or whether you hate him, you’re probably dissatisfied with how things are going because, you know, Trump’s not really in charge of the whole government. You’ve got a huge deep state rebellion going there.”
Hari and his followers were part a small but growing cohort of extremists who appear to have been inspired by Trump’s rhetoric or by conspiracy theories that promote the president as a sort of citizens’ defender against evil forces.
Curtis Allen, Gavin Wright, and Patrick Eugene Stein conspired in October 2016 to bomb an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas, where many Muslims, mostly of Somali descent, lived. The FBI became aware of the plot when a fourth man who was in the group reported it to law enforcement. In recorded conversations, the men referred to Muslims as “cockroaches,” and Stein, who was an early Trump supporter, commented: “The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.” Lawyers for the three men blamed Trump’s rhetoric for encouraging the violent plot. A lawyer for Stein wrote in a court filing that Trump appealed to Stein as “the voice of a lost and ignored white, working-class set of voters” and that “Trump’s brand of rough-and-tumble verbal pummeling heightened the rhetorical stakes for people of all political persuasions.”
Taylor Michael Wilson was among the white supremacist demonstrators at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 – demonstrators who, according to Trump, included some “very fine people.” Two months later, Wilson tried to pull the emergency brake on an Amtrak passenger train traveling through Nebraska. Armed with a handgun and carrying business cards for the white supremacist National Socialist Movement and the Covenant Nation Church, a Christian identity organization, Wilson told police he planned to kill the train’s black passengers. He was instead tackled by two conductors.
In July 2018, an unemployed Marine veteran named Matthew P. Wright blocked traffic on the Hoover Dam using an armored vehicle. Wright was armed with an AR-15 rifle, a handgun, and a flashbang device, which can temporarily stun people by generating a blinding flash. In letters he wrote to Trump and other elected officials, Wright referred to “QAnon,” a conspiracy theory that suggested that Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller were secretly working together to expose a sex-trafficking ring operated by Hillary Clinton and Hollywood celebrities.
QAnon began in October 2017, when an anonymous poster, using the handle Q, claimed on the internet forum 4chan to have information about Trump’s battle with the “deep state.” Online conspiracy theorists quickly began to parse and interpret Q’s cryptic posts, referring to them as “bread crumbs” that they believed could lead to some larger truth. Last summer, people began to show up at Trump rallies in QAnon T-shirts and holding up signs declaring: “We Are Q.” Despite the fact that many of Q’s prophecies have proven false — these bogus claims are catalogued on Reddit under the tag “Q’s Failures,” which include predicting that Republicans would win the 2018 midterms, that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions would not be fired or asked to resign, and that Clinton would be arrested — QAnon and related conspiracy theories have resonated among some of Trump’s most ardent supporters, including Hari and his followers.
More recently, Cesar Sayoc, a strip club disc jockey in Florida, allegedly mailed pipe bombs to more than a dozen Democratic Party leaders and critics of Trump. The windows of Sayoc’s white van were covered in pro-Trump stickers and images of target symbols over the faces of filmmaker Michael Moore, Clinton, and CNN commentator Van Jones.
Following Sayoc’s attempted bombings, Robert Bowers killed 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest act of anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history. Bowers said he was inspired not only by his hatred of Jews, but also by the Jewish community’s support for immigrants, whom he called “invaders.” Trump has also demonized immigrants since he announced his candidacy in 2015.
Supporters of QAnon await the arrival of President Donald Trump for a political rally at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Penn. on Aug. 2, 2018.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.
Back in Clarence after leaving Fountain Creek, Hari worked as a food inspector for farms operated by Amish, Mennonites, and members of other Anabaptist communities. Those farmers bristled at the prospect of women inspectors from outside their conservative communities visiting their farms. Hari’s business filled that niche.
In December 2016, a month after Trump was elected, Hari founded a second company, CRSS, or Crisis Resolution Security Service. The company’s logo is a muscled man giving a thumbs-up, with a helicopter, tank, and raft of soldiers behind him. “We’ve got your back!” the slogan reads. On behalf of CRSS, Hari submitted a proposal to the Department of Homeland Security to build a 1,500-mile border wall for $10.9 billion.
Hari’s proposal for what he dubbed the Great Western IBW, or International Border Wall, envisioned a barrier topped with a pedestrian walkway similar to the one atop the Great Wall of China and visitor stations in Texas and California. “The wall exists to protect the economic rights of the U.S. population and to protect our way of life from other people who have different value systems,” a narrator reads over a video proposal Hari created.
Hari’s bid caught the attention of the Chicago Tribune, which questioned his lack of experience in construction projects, particularly building security barriers. “I have had some experience with it, but not a great deal,” Hari told the newspaper in April 2017. But Hari’s ability to complete such a project, if selected, was highly questionable even if he’d had construction experience. He told a local court in 2017 that he had just $17 in his bank account.
Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Star Tribune via AP.
The Attacks Begin
Hari’s turn from extremist ideas to violent acts came on July 7, 2017. That day, aggravated by Hari’s emaciated dogs rooting through their trash, Hari’s neighbors Jon and Hope O’Neill walked over to his property to complain. They pushed open his gate and walked around the outside of his home. Hari then pulled up in his car.
“You are on my property,” Hope O’Neill remembered Hari telling them.
“We thought you were home,” she replied. “We were looking for you.”
That’s when, according to Hope O’Neill, Hari accused them of stealing from him. She and her husband laughed, then started to walk back to their home. “I got something for you,” Hari said, according to Hope O’Neill.
Hari then pulled out a gun and placed the mouth of the barrel to the back of Jon O’Neill’s head. Hope screamed, then called the police. Hope told The Intercept that she is confident the gun Hari had was real, but by the time police arrived, he was holding an air pistol, the kind that fires pellets. While not as dangerous as a real gun, air pistols can be fatal at point-blank range. The local police arrested Hari and charged him with felony unlawful restraint and misdemeanor battery.
Then came the two bombings, nearly back to back: in August 2017 at the mosque in Minnesota and then in November 2017 at a women’s clinic in Champaign, Illinois, where a secretary discovered a broken window and a device in a surgical room that appeared to be a live explosive. Investigators believe the bomb was designed to ignite oxygen tanks in the surgical room.
At first, the police and the FBI didn’t have credible leads for the bombings. That changed the day after Christmas in 2017.
Hari’s brother, Jason, an Iraq War veteran, had been in a nearly two-year feud with Hari. Jason was angry that Hari had damaged one of his trailers, while Hari had accused Jason of taking a security camera from his property and erasing photos from the camera’s memory.
Because Hari did not have electricity or running water, he often stayed at his parents’ house. While Jason was there one day, he found guns and bomb-making materials that Hari had left. Jason photographed the cache and showed the images to deputies at the same local sheriff’s office where Hari had once worked. The sheriff’s deputies referred Jason to the FBI, where he signed on as an informant.
With its first solid lead, the FBI recruited another informant, this one a member of Hari’s group, the White Rabbit Three Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia. The informant had convictions for drug possession in the 1990s and a pending assault charge, according to FBI records, which did not disclose his name. The informant told federal agents that Hari, McWhorter, and Morris were responsible for the mosque and women’s clinic bombings.
Unaware that he was the target of an expanding FBI investigation, Hari was concerned about the state charges he faced for putting a gun to his neighbor’s head. On February 19, someone using a proxy server sent an anonymous tip to the ATF that Jon O’Neill was a “possible terrorism threat” who had bombs in his shed. Jon and Hope O’Neill cooperated with investigators, who found explosives just where the anonymous tipster had promised they would. The O’Neills told the ATF that they suspected Hari had planted the bombs.
One of the explosives was wired to a green propane tank. Jason Hari told the FBI that his brother had multiple green propane tanks that he used for camping. Shown a picture of the bomb and the tank, Jason Hari said the tank looked “very similar” to the ones Hari had.
The next day, the FBI informant inside Hari’s group wore a wire and recorded a conversation with Hari, Morris, and McWhorter. The informant said he thought Morris should be more careful when talking and not use the term “bang bangs,” an apparent reference to the bombs. Hari agreed, but said he wasn’t concerned because they’d moved all of the weapons and explosives out of the old grain elevator building he’d converted into an office. Besides, he told the informant, Morris had been “in a friendly crowd” when he made the comments.
The FBI and local police went door to door trying to find out who might have been responsible for the bombs in the O’Neills’ shed. They stopped at the home of McWhorter’s brother, who gave police permission to search his house. They found rifles McWhorter had left there; they had been illegally modified to make them capable of automatic fire. McWhorter was later arrested for federal firearms violations.
As the FBI searched the tiny town of Clarence, Hari, Morris, and Mack huddled in the former grain elevator that Hari used as an office and recorded an internet video. Hari, wearing a black ski mask, stared into the camera.
After FBI agents arrived in Clarence, Illinois, Michael Hari posted a series of videos to YouTube calling for militia members to help defend his group. Video: Youtube
“We’re speaking to you from the Clarence, Illinois, area, where we’ve had a crisis in the last something over a week,” Hari said. He described a “bomb scare” in town and claimed FBI agents were searching homes without warrants.
“We’re asking for militia support to come and help us. … All of our liberties are on the line,” Hari continued. “If they can come into a town like ours and just rule it like they have, then they can do this anywhere. So we’re sending an appeal to all the militia brothers out there. Please come and support us in Clarence, Illinois. We need people to stand with us and win back our liberty, because it’s definitely gone. If this sort of thing can happen in Clarence, Illinois, it can happen anywhere. It can happen to you. It can happen to your family. We need you to come and stand with us.”
Morris and Mack, also wearing ski masks, took turns sitting in front of the computer’s video camera to ask for backup. “Sending out a request for more militia to come and help us take our town back,” Morris said in the video. “A lot of us have friends and family that we can no longer see now.”
A few days later, the FBI arrested Hari on the steps of the local courthouse, where he was scheduled to attend a hearing on the unlawful restraint and battery charges. He now faces separate federal trials in Minnesota for the mosque bombing, which is scheduled to begin September 30, and in Illinois for the women’s clinic bombing, which has not yet been scheduled. As is common for domestic extremists who use bombs, Hari and his followers weren’t charged with a terrorism-related offense, such as material support or weapons of mass destruction. Instead, federal prosecutors in Illinois charged Hari and his group with firearms violations, conspiracy, and attempted arsons, while prosecutors in Minnesota filed explosives charges.
McWhorter and Morris pleaded guilty in Minnesota to bombing the mosque there and the attempted bombing of the women’s clinic in Illinois. They also pleaded guilty to an Illinois charge alleging they conspired to commit robbery to raise money for Hari’s group. McWhorter’s stepson, Mack, who was not charged in the Minnesota mosque bombing, pleaded guilty in Illinois to firearms violations and the robbery conspiracy.
McWhorter has been cooperating with the FBI. He told agents that Hari spoke of reporting to “higher-ups” named “Ben Lewis” and “Congo Joe.” It’s unclear if these people exist.
In a letter from jail, Hari told The Intercept that he couldn’t comment on his case due to “legal circumstances.” However, he enclosed a poem he’d written titled, “We Are Men! The Battle Cry of the Patriot Freedom Fighters!”
Men built the walls, And men can destroy them.
We are men!
Men took away our rights To defend ourselves, To innocence, until proven guilty, To make our choices, and to live our lives. But men can win them back.
We are men!
Men built this unjust system, And men can destroy it.
On a narrow street in Charlottesville, Virginia, James Alex Fields Jr. pressed the accelerator of his gray Dodge Challenger. Dozens of people were walking in front of him. They had come to protest Fields and hundreds of other white supremacists who’d descended on this pleasant Southern college town for the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017.
“Our streets!” the protesters chanted in response to the white supremacists. “Our streets!”
When some protesters realized the gray car wasn’t stopping, they screamed. Then came the scrapes and thuds and finally a crash as Fields barreled into the crowd, sending people into the air and diving for safety, before the Dodge slammed into the back of another car.
Fields then shifted the car into reverse and backed out toward the main road, the front bumper scraping the pavement and the engine squealing.
Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old Charlottesville resident, was killed in the attack. At least 19 others were hurt.
Fields, a 20-year-old from Ohio who had been open about his racist views since high school, had marched in Virginia with the white supremacist group Vanguard America. He was charged in Virginia state court with murder and in federal court with hate crimes. He was not charged as a terrorist, despite then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions having initially described the Charlottesville attack as meeting “the definition of domestic terrorism.”
In announcing Fields’s federal indictment 10 months later, however, Sessions avoided using the word “terrorism” altogether, saying instead that the Justice Department remains “resolute that hateful ideologies will not have the last word and that their adherents will not get away with violent crimes against those they target.”
An Intercept analysis of federal prosecutions since 9/11 found that the Justice Department has routinely declined to bring terrorism charges against right-wing extremists even when their alleged crimes meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism: ideologically motivated acts that are harmful to human life and intended to intimidate civilians, influence policy, or change government conduct.
If Fields had been a Muslim aligned with an international terrorist group, the Justice Department almost certainly would have handled his case differently. According to The Intercept’s review, 268 right-wing extremists prosecuted in federal court since 9/11 were allegedly involved in crimes that appear to meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism. Yet the Justice Department applied anti-terrorism laws against only 34 of them, compared to more than 500 alleged international terrorists.
“Terrorism is considered the most important kind of crime,” said Jesse Norris, a criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. “It’s not a crime against some; it’s a crime against all. When you put people and crimes in that category, it places more importance on them. People take these crimes more seriously. That’s why it’s a problem that we have this double standard in classifying international terrorism violence as terrorism and domestic terrorism violence as not terrorism.”
Take the case of Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant, who drove a rented Home Depot truck through a bike lane in Lower Manhattan nearly three months after the Charlottesville attack, killing eight people. Saipov, who was injured in the assault, was so proud of his militant allegiances that he asked federal agents if he could display the Islamic State’s black flag in his hospital room.
Saipov’s crime was almost identical to Fields’s, but Sessions called his attack “a calculated act of terrorism in the heart of one of our great cities.” He was charged in federal court with murder and providing material support to ISIS.
Both Saipov and Fields grabbed the nation’s attention. Both were extremists who allegedly turned vehicles into deadly weapons. But because one was motivated by a foreign extremist ideology and the other by a domestic one, federal prosecutors treated one as a terrorist and the other as a crazy white guy filled with rage.
As a string of deadly attacks and plots by alleged domestic terrorists have made headlines in recent months, there is some evidence that federal prosecutors and law enforcement may be changing their approach. Officials have repeatedly used the term “domestic terrorist” to describe Christopher Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist arrested last month for allegedly plotting to kill politicians and journalists, though they have yet to charge him with a terrorism offense. And current and former Justice Department officials have begun talking more openly about domestic terrorism as a pressing concern.
Nevertheless, a significant disparity remains in how these two types of ideologically motivated violence are handled, one rooted in the highly politicized way that U.S. laws and Justice Department officials define acts of terrorism. Terrorism has always been a political construct — there’s even a cliché for this — but its legal definition in the United States dates back only to 1986, when the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act made terrorist attacks against U.S. diplomats or citizens traveling abroad a crime.
In the 1990s, the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act made acts of terrorism committed within the United States, including those inspired by domestic ideologies, federal offenses. Before these laws, there was no crime of terrorism under the U.S. penal code, and it was only after the 9/11 attacks that anti-terrorism laws came to be widely used in federal criminal prosecutions. Such laws have raised critical questions among legal scholars and civil libertarians about whether the inherent difficulty in defining terrorism essentially guarantees prosecutorial abuse.
Domestic terrorism suspects enjoy basic legal protections denied to those accused of ties to international terrorism.
The U.S. State Department provides a broad framework — and the political cover that goes with it — for federal prosecutors to bring charges against alleged international terrorists. In those cases, charging someone with terrorism is relatively simple. The State Department administers a list of designated foreign terrorist organizations; anyone caught supporting one of these groups can be charged with terrorism-related crimes.
Domestic terrorism suspects enjoy basic legal protections denied to those accused of ties to international terrorism. Because of First Amendment concerns that a list of domestic terrorist groups would unconstitutionally criminalize unpopular ideas and ideologies, there is no such list, making the abusive types of prosecutions used to target alleged international terrorists more difficult to pursue against domestic actors. But prosecutors still have plenty of legal tools at their disposal to go after alleged domestic extremists.
Among them is an expansive law against providing material support to terrorists, which has two provisions. One outlaws nearly any kind of support to organizations on the list of State Department-designated foreign terrorist groups, and has been widely and controversially used by prosecutors to tar even nonviolent political or charitable activity with the international terrorism brush.
“The material support regime as a general matter is extremely broad, and we have concerns about its overbreadth and vagueness,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “A disturbingly high number of material support prosecutions, including abusive sting operations, are against people who don’t actually have a tie to a terrorist or extremist group or haven’t actually committed a violent act or even attempted to commit a violent act.”
But the other provision of the material support law allows the Justice Department to prosecute suspects for their role in supporting about 50 proscribed offenses, including bombing government buildings, murdering government employees, using weapons of mass destruction, and hostage taking. The material support law does have some practical limitations concerning domestic extremists. Attacks not involving a bomb or radiological device — such as Dylann Roof’s mass shooting in South Carolina or Fields’s car attack in Virginia — require the killing or attempted killing of a U.S. government employee or the destruction of U.S. government property for the material support law to be applicable. There are no such legal requirements under material support when the attacker is affiliated with or inspired by an international terrorist organization.
Photo: Rich Lipski/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Terrorism by the Numbers
Hundreds of prosecutions of Muslims on terrorism charges in the wake of the 9/11 attacks have created the perception that international terrorism is a significantly graver and more persistent threat in the United States than right-wing domestic extremism. But whether one is more serious than the other is the subject of ongoing debate. Some studies by academics, think tanks, civil rights groups, and news organizations have suggested that right-wing terrorism poses the greater threat. A 2017 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office on terrorist violence from September 12, 2001 through December 31, 2016 found that while slightly more people have been killed by Muslim extremists than by their right-wing counterparts, right-wing extremists were responsible for three times as many violent acts. Research by the Anti-Defamation League on 573 “extremist-related fatalities” from 2002 to 2018 found that 80 percent of the victims were killed by right-wing extremists.
“It all depends on how you count,” Norris said.
But one thing is clear: By almost exclusively charging international extremists as terrorists, the Justice Department inflates the perceived threat of those actors, compared to those with right-wing domestic ideologies. The press has reinforced this notion; a recent University of Alabama study found that terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists receive 357 percent more media coverage than attacks committed by non-Muslims.
The double standard has had powerful consequences for how the FBI allocates counterterrorism resources, leading invariably to international threats being prioritized over domestic ones.
This double standard has had powerful consequences for how the FBI and other law enforcement agencies allocate counterterrorism resources, leading invariably to international threats being prioritized over domestic ones. While no public government report quantifies the number of domestic extremists arrested by federal, state, and local authorities, Justice Department officials have fastidiously maintained a list of international terrorism prosecutions since 9/11. That list has been released periodically, in 2010, 2014, and 2015, and the data is often used to bolster political initiatives, as happened last year when the Trump administration apparently manipulated it in an attempt to justify its so-called Muslim ban.
So who are the right-wing domestic terrorists in the United States? The current system has left that to individual federal prosecutors to decide. After a Donald Trump supporter sent pipe bombs to Democratic Party leaders and critics of the president in October, and in the wake of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, these charging decisions seem more critical than ever.
“We clearly have domestic terrorist groups in the United States. We just don’t call them terrorist groups,” said Brendan R. McGuire, a former prosecutor who served as the terrorism chief for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. “Generally speaking, there continue to be challenges within the government to applying the terrorism label to purely domestic conduct. We’re just much more experienced and comfortable with exporting that label, with seeing terrorism as something that comes only from the outside.”
Photo: Steph Chambers/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
Vague Guidelines, Underused Laws
What makes a white supremacist’s attack on a group of minorities terrorism, rather than, say, a hate crime? When an anti-abortion zealot plants a bomb at a women’s clinic, should he be charged with using weapons of mass destruction or with a lesser explosives charge?
Terrorism is subjective. In the eyes of federal prosecutors, an American-born ISIS sympathizer who has never met another ISIS supporter, for example, is a terrorist as long as he commits an act of violence and credits the terrorist organization. A white supremacist who consorts with other white supremacists and bombs a mosque could be a terrorist, but more often is only charged with possessing and using explosives. That accusation may describe the facts of the alleged crime, but it doesn’t instantly conjure the sense of collective peril implied by a charge of attempting to use weapons of mass destruction.
“Like so much of the counterterrorism discourse, it’s based on these feelings that we have about how things happen, rather than data,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. “Back in the ’90s, terrorism was usually used as a rhetorical device. If I wanted to say this kind of violence was extremely bad, I’d say it’s terrorism. But it had no meaning in the courtroom, where we’re charging murder or conspiracy or whatever we’re charging. By bringing a pejorative term like ‘terrorism’ into the court, you’re politicizing the prosecution.”
“By bringing a pejorative term like ‘terrorism’ into the court, you’re politicizing the prosecution.”
Internal Justice Department guidelines are so vague that prosecutors often come up with their own criteria to determine whether to file a terrorism-related charge in domestic extremism cases, former federal prosecutor Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. said. While Hockeimer was at the Justice Department, he and his colleagues developed their own set of rules to determine when to charge a suspect with a terrorism offense, basing decisions in part on who and how many people were targeted in an attack, even though the law doesn’t contain specific references to either. “You have to ask yourself: Is the attack aimed at causing a high-volume loss of life? Or is it targeting a particular area in order to kill one or two people?” Hockeimer said. “You have to look at what the ultimate result of it was.”
FBI and Justice Department officials have used the recent resurgence of far-right extremism to make the case for a new domestic terrorism law, in an echo of what occurred after the 9/11 attacks, when members of Congress demanded new laws to combat Al Qaeda and approved the Patriot Act, which created and expanded a host of anti-terrorism laws and government surveillance powers. But is an aggressive new law needed, when prosecutors already have powerful and controversial anti-terrorism laws at their disposal – laws that they have only rarely chosen to use against right-wing extremists?
Among the relatively few right-wing defendants to face weapons of mass destruction charges since 9/11 was anti-government extremist Jerry Drake Varnell. An FBI agent posing as a fellow anti-government extremist provided Varnell with a van loaded with a fake bomb. Varnell then tried to detonate the bomb next to a bank in Oklahoma City. He was charged with and convicted of several offenses, including attempting to use weapons of mass destruction — a charge that is almost universally applied to Muslims caught in counterterrorism stings similar to his.
But Varnell is one of only 24 right-wing extremists since 9/11 to face a weapons of mass destruction charge. Prosecutors more often bring less serious charges against violent right-wing actors like Thaddeus Cheyenne Murphy, who bombed an NAACP office in Colorado and was charged with firearms violations and being a felon in possession of firearms, or, more recently, Paul M. Rosenfeld, who was convicted of an explosives charge for plotting to detonate a homemade bomb on the National Mall on Election Day 2018 to raise awareness about “sortition,” a political theory that advocates the random selection of government officials over their election.
Photo: Christian Murdock/The Colorado Springs Gazette via AP
The infrequent and lower-profile use of anti-terrorism laws in right-wing cases has set the stage for claims that new laws are needed to combat domestic terrorists. Thomas E. Brzozowski, a former FBI official who is now the Justice Department’s Domestic Terrorism Counsel, has argued that current laws limit prosecutors’ ability to charge and describe domestic terrorists. “In many instances, the government is going to be constrained, to a certain degree, from stepping in front of a podium and saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re revealing domestic terrorism here,” Brzozowski said at an event hosted by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism in January.
Brzozowski has been joined by a chorus of current and former Justice Department and FBI officials. Last month, Thomas T. Cullen, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia who is prosecuting Fields, the Charlottesville attacker, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times calling for a domestic terrorism law. In 2017, Thomas F. O’Connor, a counterterrorism agent in Washington, D.C., who is also the president of the FBI Agents Association, the union that represents the bureau’s more than 13,000 agents, made a similar case in The Hill. Because there are no penalties attached to the legal definition of domestic terrorism, O’Connor reasoned, “‘domestic terrorism’ is not a crime in and of itself under federal law.”
“The answer is that a new law is not necessary to take on the scourge of white supremacist violence. The government already has the tools necessary to take on this threat.”
But Cullen’s and O’Connor’s arguments are flawed. The crime of “international terrorism” doesn’t exist either, yet hundreds of people with alleged links to foreign groups have been charged under anti-terrorism laws. In addition to material support — which the Patriot Act expanded and for which it increased the maximum punishment from 10 years to 15 years, or life in prison if the crime results in death — statutes available to prosecute domestic and international terrorists include a law that prohibits the use of “weapons of mass destruction” — including everything from a nuclear weapon to a pressure-cooker explosive or a pipe bomb — and another that defines attacks on mass transit systems as terrorism.
Even when prosecutors decline to charge defendants with terrorism-related offenses, they have an opportunity to ask for a so-called terrorism adjustment at sentencing that results in longer prison terms if a judge agrees that the crime meets the definition of domestic terrorism. But prosecutors have only asked for such enhancements in a handful of right-wing cases, according to The Intercept’s analysis. One was the case of Wayde Lynn Kurt, a white supremacist in Washington state who was convicted by a jury in 2011 of firearms violations. Recordings he had made indicated that he was planning a terrorist attack called the “final solution,” which included a plot to kill then-President Barack Obama.
“It’s important to emphasize that whenever you see a terrorism-related legislative proposal, you have to ask, ‘Is it necessary? How will it be used against the very minority groups that we need and want to protect and who have historically and wrongly been FBI targets and still largely are?’” said Shamsi of the ACLU. “The answer is that a new law is not necessary to take on the scourge of white supremacist violence. The government already has the tools necessary to take on this threat.”
Since stepping down shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Mary B. McCord, a former top official in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, has been making a public argument similar to those of Brzozowski, Cullen, and O’Connor. McCord haswrittenthat while state and federal laws can provide significant punishment for domestic terrorists — including life sentences and the death penalty — “they fail to equate it under federal law, as it deserves to be equated, with the actions of ISIS-inspired terrorists who engage in violence in pursuit of their equally insidious goals.”
Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Asked why she supports the creation of a new domestic terrorism law when prosecutors could use laws already on the books, such as the one that prohibits providing material support to terrorists, McCord, who as head of the National Security Division was responsible for authorizing terrorism charges nationwide, told The Intercept during a phone interview that the material support law requires “an international component.”
In fact, the material support provision that is focused on terrorists generally, and includes the approximately 50 proscribed offenses, has been used against domestic extremists — but only three times. In the only such case since 9/11, Eric J. Feight, a New York man, was charged with and convicted of material support for helping a white supremacist build a radiological “death ray” for use against Muslims.
The material support charge against Feight was approved when McCord was second-in-command at the National Security Division. When asked about it, she said the case “was tied to international terrorism.” Told that this was untrue, McCord asked for 15 minutes to review Feight’s prosecution, then called back to acknowledge that she had been mistaken. In hindsight, she said, maybe the Justice Department could use the material support law more aggressively against domestic extremists. “Certainly, if I were still at the Department of Justice, and I saw a person who was contributing material support to one of these enumerated offenses, I would definitely approve charging that,” McCord said, “including in situations that have no nexus to international terrorism.”
Although a small case history exists of prosecuting domestic extremists under material support and other anti-terrorism laws, officials at the Justice Department wring their hands over whether to use such laws in cases of domestic terrorism and generally avoid public discussions about the use of anti-terrorism laws against domestic extremists, more than a dozen current and former prosecutors told The Intercept. Instead, they suggest that new and even more powerful laws are needed to pursue right-wing extremists.
A Lack of Transparency
The U.S. government does not track acts of domestic terrorism or related federal prosecutions in any systematic way, leaving the Justice Department with few tools to determine whether domestic extremist threats are on the rise at a time when white supremacists have been emboldened by Trump’s nationalistic, anti-immigrant rhetoric.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last October that “domestic extremist movements collectively pose a steady threat of violence and economic harm to the United States.” A year earlier, before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wray described the threat of domestic terrorism as “very, very serious” and “something that we spend a lot of our time focused on.” He has declined in congressional testimony to say how many agents are working on the problem but mentioned in 2017 that “about 1,000 open domestic terrorism investigations as we speak.” The FBI also declined requests from The Intercept to provide the number of agents assigned to such cases, stating, “While we cannot comment specifically on this breakdown, the FBI’s top priority remains protecting the United States from terrorist attacks — both international and domestic.”
Yet in fiscal year 2009, the most recent year for which such data has been made public, just 335 of the bureau’s more than 13,000 agents were assigned to domestic terrorism. By contrast, international terrorism is the FBI’s top priority, with thousands of agents devoted to it.
Photo: WPLG-TV via AP
One man’s nutjob can be a federal prosecutor’s domestic terrorist. The Justice Department’s internal case management system reveals how subjective, and sometimes ridiculous, it can be to try to define acts of terrorism.
Federal prosecutors nationwide use an internal system called the Legal Information Office Network System, or LIONS, which stores data about cases. The data is only released publicly in the aggregate, but as part of its review of federal prosecutions, The Intercept, working with another database maintained by federal court administrators, unmasked 752 cases that prosecutors have designated as involving an alleged domestic terrorist, accounting for approximately half the cases in LIONS that were coded as domestic terrorism.
The data suggests that, while the Justice Department follows a very narrow definition of domestic terrorism publicly and when bringing criminal charges, prosecutors take an expansive and at times comically inconsistent view of it internally, labeling hundreds of cases as involving domestic terrorism even when the facts do not support the designation.
While the Justice Department follows a very narrow definition of domestic terrorism publicly, prosecutors take an expansive and at times comically inconsistent view of it internally.
Of those cases, only 15 appeared to meet the federal statutory definition of domestic terrorism, which requires that violence be motivated by a domestic ideology. A handful of cases involved violent acts that may have met the definition of domestic terrorism, but nothing in the case files suggested an ideological motivation. Others related to international terrorism, involving defendants accused of supporting Hamas, the Colombian guerrilla group FARC, ISIS, and others.
But the vast majority — more than 700 cases — involved incidents that don’t appear to match the legal definition of terrorism at all, such as a Connecticut man making menacing phone calls and sending a threatening letter to ESPN sportscasters over a personal grievance. Prosecutors designated an Alabama man’s case as domestic terrorism after he fired rifle rounds into an energy facility, even though there was no indication that the shooting was ideologically motivated. In another case marked as domestic terrorism, a West Virginia man firebombed a mobile home using a Molotov cocktail in exchange for $400 and some Oxycontin.
The Growing Threat
The FBI logged 176 domestic terrorism arrests between September 2016 and September 2017, according to Wray’s 2017 Senate testimony. That number is significantly higher than media reports and Justice Department and local police announcements during that period suggest. When The Intercept asked under the Freedom of Information Act for any documents or communications to support Wray’s number, the FBI responded that it could find no records to support the director’s statement. Then, earlier this month, law enforcement sources provided “approximate” numbers to the Washington Post, suggesting that in 2017 and 2018, the FBI conducted more investigations of domestic terrorists than international ones. The claim appeared to signal a reversal of priorities at the FBI, but could not be vetted, as the source material for the number wasn’t provided to the Post.
It’s impossible to know from publicly available information and the leaked aggregate numbers that the Post reported how effective the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been at thwarting right-wing extremists before they transform their hate into violence. But what is clear is that a significant number of violent extremists are slipping through the FBI’s dragnet.
Among the domestic terrorists the FBI recently missed was a 56-year-old strip club DJ who wore a “Make America Great Again” hat and once posted a video selfie from a Trump rally in Florida. A prolific Twitter user, Cesar Sayoc posted far-right conspiracy theories and sent threatening messages to Trump’s opponents, including one to former Vice President Joe Biden with a photo of an alligator that had eaten a man.
The FBI was unaware of Sayoc until October 2018, when more than a dozen pipe bombs began to arrive at the homes and offices of Democratic Party leaders and Trump critics. Two of the bombs, one addressed to former CIA Director John Brennan and the other to former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, were mailed to CNN. None detonated, though all contained explosive material and in some cases shards of glass to maximize injury. A fingerprint on an envelope matched one Sayoc had provided following an earlier arrest in Florida, where, over the previous two decades, he’d been charged with theft and threatening to bomb the local power company in an attack that he said would be “worse than September 11.”
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images; Illustration: The Intercept
Sayoc was initially charged in U.S. District Court with mailing explosives, making threats, and assaulting federal officers. He was not charged as a terrorist, though his alleged crimes appeared to meet the U.S. statutory definition of domestic terrorism. Sessions, then the attorney general, instead referred to Sayoc as “a partisan” who had committed “political violence.”
But soon after prosecutors filed the indictment, amid unprecedented media coverage and public debate about the scourge of right-wing domestic terrorism, the Justice Department’s language began to change. In a filing supporting Sayoc’s extradition from Florida to New York, where he faces criminal charges, federal prosecutors described his offenses as “a domestic terrorist attack targeting at least 15 victims” waged as part of a “terror campaign.”
On November 9, 2018, two weeks after Sayoc’s arrest and three days after an election gave Democrats, including some Sayoc had targeted, a majority in the House of Representatives, federal prosecutors in New York issued a new indictment, filing 30 charges against Sayoc, including five that alleged he used weapons of mass destruction — an anti-terrorism charge that has been applied against 79 international terrorists since 9/11 but just 23 other right-wing extremists during the same time period.
Sayoc pleaded guilty on Thursday to 65 charges, including 35 newly filed counts. He faces the possibility of life in prison — a harsh sentence that sends a message about how seriously our society takes the crime he committed. What’s unusual is that this standard is being applied to someone who can’t be cast as an agent of an international terrorist group.
So far, that isn’t the case for Hasson, the Coast Guard lieutenant living in Maryland who put together a cache of firearms and steroids and a target list of journalists and prominent Democrats. A self-described white nationalist, Hasson allegedly plotted an attack that he hoped would spark a race war.
“The defendant is a domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect governmental conduct,” federal prosecutors wrote in a court filing last month.
Although those prosecutors announced after Hasson’s arrest that they were considering the addition of terrorism-related charges, they haven’t filed any. Hasson faces charges of firearms and drug violations.
He’s like many right-wing extremists in the United States: labeled a terrorist, but not prosecuted as one.
Glendon Scott Crawford was a mechanic at General Electric in Schenectady, New York. A tall, slender, middle-aged man with rectangular eyeglasses, he was married with three children. By appearances, he was an unremarkable middle-class American.
But beneath Crawford’s vanilla exterior lurked a white supremacist angry about President Barack Obama’s election and contemptuous of upstate New York’s sizable Muslim community. And he had ambitious plans to transform his hatred into violence.
He wanted to build a “death ray,” a portable, remote-controlled radiological weapon made from medical equipment and off-the-shelf electronics. He’d load the weapon into a van with tinted windows, drive it to a nearby mosque, scurry away to a safe distance, and switch it on remotely using a smartphone. Anyone in its path would be radiated and left to die a slow, mysterious death. He even had a pithy nickname for his weapon: “Hiroshima on a light switch.”
Crawford’s killing machine was never built. He was convicted at trial in August 2015 of attempting to use a radiological dispersal device and a weapon of mass destruction. He is serving 30 years in prison.
His case is remarkable not so much for its absurdity — federal agents admitted that his imagined weapon was likely impossible to make — but for how prosecutors handled it. Crawford’s co-defendant, an engineer named Eric J. Feight who had agreed to build the weapon’s remote control, pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorism — the first and only time federal prosecutors have used the material support law against a domestic extremist since 9/11, according to a review of federal prosecutions by The Intercept.
Photo: Skip Dickstein/The Albany Times Union via AP
The material support law is prosecutors’ tool of choice for hauling international terrorists into federal court — more than 400 international terrorism defendants have faced material support charges since 9/11. But the Justice Department has been reluctant to use this expansive and powerful law, which allows defendants to be prosecuted for providing minimal, and at times, inconsequential, support to a violent plot, against domestic terrorists.
The rarity of such charges has helped drive a false narrative that domestic terrorism is not punishable under existing anti-terrorism laws. “Why is there no criminal statute for domestic terrorism?” CBS News asked in October 2017. “Americans Are Surprised Domestic Terrorism Isn’t A Federal Crime,” HuffPost declared last April.
Graphic: Moiz Syed/The Intercept
In fact, the government has ample room to go after domestic terrorism under existing laws. The material support law has two parts. The first can be applied to anyone who commits or assists with a terrorist attack, including one rooted in a domestic ideology, so long as the crime involves one of about 50 proscribed offenses, including bombing government buildings, murdering government employees, using weapons of mass destruction, and hostage taking. The second and more controversial allows the Justice Department to prosecute anyone supporting or working with a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization, however minor their role in an attack or plot, including even unwitting targets of FBI undercover stings who never were in contact with actual terrorists. Civil libertarians have for two decades criticized the material support law, but primarily for the abuses possible in the more expansive provision for international terrorists. The more limited provision for domestic terrorism is harder for prosecutors to abuse.
Although the part of the material support law that can be used against domestic extremists is limited in some important ways — mass shootings not involving the death of government employees are notably absent from the list of offenses eligible for material support charges — Feight’s conviction in the “death ray” plot shows that domestic extremists can in many cases be prosecuted using the same aggressive laws that federal prosecutors wield against international terrorists. But the Justice Department has been reluctant to use that authority against white supremacists and followers of other domestic ideologies.
This double standard has little to do with existing laws. Instead, it is a result of decisions within the Justice Department, which since 9/11 has prioritized international terrorism prosecutions at the expense of domestic ones.
“After 9/11, the FBI’s and the Justice Department’s resources were directed to international terrorism. The prosecutions against domestic terrorists suffered,” said Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., a former federal prosecutor who served on the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Task Force in the 1990s. “I follow the domestic terrorism cases, and I sometimes wonder why prosecutors aren’t going after more significant statutes with these guys, using the anti-terrorism laws. On one hand, I suspect the average person thinks of terrorism in the international sense, and to some degree, the Justice Department has come to think of terrorism in that way as well.”
A law enforcement officer escorts Floyd Raymond Looker, the self-proclaimed head of the Mountaineer Militia, into the federal courthouse in Wheeling, W.V., for his second trial on Aug. 13, 1997.
Photo: Gary Tramontina/AP
A Domestic Anti-Terrorism Law
Among the first known instances of the material support law being used against domestic extremists came in 1996, when federal prosecutors charged seven men with assembling explosives and plotting to blow up an FBI building. Prosecutors filed material support charges against two of the seven men, Floyd Raymond Looker and James R. Rogers. Looker, the leader of a group known as the West Virginia Mountaineer Militia, and Rogers, a lieutenant in a local fire department who provided blueprints of the FBI building, pleaded guilty.
Five years later, in February 2001, federal prosecutors brought material support charges against Connor Cash, an environmental activist accused of being a leader of the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group that had claimed responsibility for arsons and vandalism throughout the United States. The Justice Department alleged that Cash had assisted in the arson of five homes under construction on Long Island, as well as an unsuccessful plot to burn down a duck farm and release the animals. A jury acquitted Cash of all counts in May 2004.
“I suspect the average person thinks of terrorism in the international sense, and to some degree, the Justice Department has come to think of terrorism in that way as well.”
After the 9/11 attacks, when federal prosecutors began to turn to the material support law as the statute of choice in prosecuting international terrorists, the Justice Department created the National Security Division, which absorbed the counterterrorism and counterespionage sections and created a powerful bureaucratic node responsible for national security prosecutions. Under a policy created at the time, and still in effect today, all terrorism-related charges — including material support and the use of weapons of mass destruction — must be approved by the National Security Division. After the policy took effect, the Justice Department’s tentative experiments with using the material support law against domestic terrorists hit a wall.
In the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the Justice Department and the FBI reoriented to focus significant resources on international terrorism threats, with the prevention of another terrorist attack from Al Qaeda or other groups as the top priority for both agencies. White supremacists, right-wing extremists, and other domestic terrorists were not a pressing concern. “If you took yourself back to 2006, when the National Security Division was first started, the country was still in the throes of responses to 9/11,” said Mary B. McCord, the Justice Department’s acting assistant attorney general for national security from 2016 to 2017 and a principal deputy assistant attorney general for its National Security Division from 2014 to 2016.
McCord and other former federal prosecutors maintain that the Justice Department has always taken domestic terrorism seriously. But in the years since 9/11, the difference between how domestic and international terrorists are prosecuted and punished has been striking.
Photo: Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP
The case of William “Bill” Keebler is an example. He came to the FBI’s attention after spending two weeks in Nevada during the 2014 armed standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters. Keebler helped organize Bundy’s supporters by posting on social media and YouTube under the handle “Th3Hunt3r.” After returning home to Utah, Keebler started organizing a militia of his own, recruiting like-minded people on Facebook and at local gun shows. “We are now being taken by a rogue government,” he wrote in a May 2014 Facebook post.
Keebler called his militia the Patriots Defense Force. FBI informants who joined the group told federal agents that members were preparing for future standoffs with the government, operations to rob drug dealers at the U.S.-Mexico border, and violent attacks targeting Muslims. The FBI then inserted two undercover agents into Keebler’s militia. One agent told Keebler that he had experience with explosives.
Because Keebler had tried to bomb a government building, the material support law could have applied. Instead, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge federal prosecutors had chosen.
By June 2016, the Patriots Defense Force had eight members, including two FBI undercover agents and a government informant. Members of the militia had talked about killing Muslims, and Keebler and the undercover agents drove to a mosque to consider it as a target. But Keebler was most interested in an attack on the Bureau of Land Management. He and one of the FBI agents concocted a plot to bomb a cabin in Utah used by the bureau. The FBI built the bomb, which was fake, and Keebler planted it in the cabin. The bomb simply fizzled, as designed, and in July 2016, Keebler was charged with attempting to damage federal property with an explosive device. Despite a federal prosecutor describing Keebler as a “would-be terrorist,” the militia leader did not face terrorism-related charges.
Because Keebler had tried to bomb a government building, the material support law could have applied and with it, a possible 15-year prison sentence. Instead, Keebler spent two years in prison while his case was pending, and after pleading guilty to the lesser charge federal prosecutors had chosen, he was sentenced to time served and three years of probation. Prosecutors did not ask for a “terrorism enhancement” at sentencing — a request that, if approved by the judge, could have resulted in a more significant sentence. Keebler, now on probation in Utah, declined to comment for this article.
By contrast, federal prosecutors charged Nicholas Young, a 36-year-old Muslim police officer in Washington, D.C., with material support when he sent a $245 gift card to a man he believed was with the Islamic State. The gift card recipient was in fact an FBI informant. Young was found guilty at trial and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Last month, an appeals court vacated his convictions on two charges of attempting to obstruct justice, but upheld his conviction for material support. Young will be re-sentenced soon, but his original 15-year term was in line with those of the more than 400 other Muslim terrorism defendants convicted of material support.
A law enforcement officer walks on the street outside the home of Nicholas Young on Aug. 3, 2016, in Fairfax, Va.
Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Current federal prosecutors, including Thomas E. Brzozowski, the Justice Department’s counsel for domestic terrorism, declined to comment for this article. In an interview with The Intercept, McCord said that in retrospect, she and other prosecutors had underutilized the material support law for prosecuting and punishing domestic terrorists.
“I’ve been a cheerleader for the fact that, hey, this is the same stuff — extremism is extremism,” McCord said. “The white supremacist extremism we’re seeing right now, they’ve taken the playbook from the foreign terrorist organizations in terms of who they’re trying to recruit and who can be easily drawn to feel like they’re working for something bigger than themselves. To me, the parallels are very close.”
Despite the material support law being used predominantly against Muslim extremists during her tenure at the Justice Department, McCord said religion was never a factor in charging decisions. “I think, frankly, because of 9/11 and Al Qaeda and ISIS and Islamic extremism, we have been overly focused on those threats,” McCord said. “But I would be a happy to call a domestic terrorist a domestic terrorist. I will shout it from the rooftops.”
The “Death Ray” Case
The only case in which federal prosecutors have brought material support charges against domestic terrorists since 9/11 began with a phone call.
Crawford, the New York man who tried to build a “death ray,” needed help financing the construction of his weapon. In July 2012, he called a Ku Klux Klan hotline in North Carolina operated by Chris Barker, an imperial wizard in a KKK group called Loyal White Knights. Crawford reportedly left a message saying that he had explosives that he wanted to detonate in New York or New Jersey.
Barker was facing state firearms charges in North Carolina. He and his lawyer took the voicemail to the FBI, offering up Crawford in exchange for leniency on the firearms charges. The FBI then enlisted Barker as an informant and set up an elaborate sting.
Barker invited Crawford to come to North Carolina to discuss his plans. In a hotel room, Crawford met with Barker, a heavyset man with a goatee and ears slightly too large for his head, and two FBI undercover agents. One agent was pretending to be a Klansman, while the other was posing as a wealthy, like-minded businessperson looking to finance an attack.
Crawford met with an FBI informant and undercover agents in a North Carolina hotel room, where he asked for money to help build a “death ray” to target Muslims in upstate New York. Video: FBI
“Now I don’t know how close you guys have been watching, but you might have noticed that for the last 20 years or so, and especially during this administration, all the fashionable ethnic groups really can do no wrong, OK?” Crawford said, according to video from an FBI camera that had been hidden in the hotel room. “You know, we got Black Panthers committing felonies. That don’t matter — Eric Holder’s not going to prosecute his people. Mexicans — illegal Mexicans get to come in and do whatever they want. They rape, maim, and pillage. They turn ’em loose. They got, like, Jessie Jackass and Al Charlatan kicking up the Justice for Trayvon mobs. And it never ends, OK? Hate crimes, OK? This is all — white Christians just need not apply. White Christians need not apply for law-abiding protection or anything like that. And then you’ve got CAIR, OK? The Council on American-Islamic Relations, OK? We can do no right. We’re convicted in the press before we do anything, OK?”
Crawford then described his plan to create a “death ray” to target Muslims. He said he already had an accomplice, Feight, whom he called his “software guy”; he just needed money.
“This could kill whole cities in a night, silently,” Crawford said of his proposed weapon.
“If you had it in the parking lot of, say, your local mosque, or just outside of it, and pointed in the given direction, you would be able to — it would reach from here to the mosque?” an undercover FBI agent asked.
“Easily,” Crawford said.
“Then what happens? You shut it off, that’s it? No more radiation?”
“Then you come and get the truck. You drive it up, you park it, you point it. You’d be totally anonymous. You’d be untraceable. It would be weeks before anyone had any inkling anything was wrong, and they’d probably drop dead in their beds.”
“It’s almost too good to be true,” one of the agents said.
“I think the potential is considerable,” Crawford added. “Just make sure you’re nowhere near this thing when it goes off, OK? Like curvature-of-the-earth distance, OK?”
“But if it’s working from a smartphone, I can call it from —” one of the agents said.
“Anywhere,” Crawford answered, finishing the sentence. “You could call it from home.”
The FBI agents agreed to support Crawford’s “death ray,” and in November 2012, they traveled to upstate New York to meet with him and his “software guy.” Feight, who had curly hair and a mustache, had worked as an engineer for more than two decades and was the father of three girls.
For their meeting, Crawford came up with code names. He was “Dmitri.” Feight was “Yoda.” The undercover agents were “Robin Hood” and “Daddy Warbucks.” The “death ray” was “the Baby.” They even had a code phrase for killing Muslims: “sterilizing medical waste.”
Because Feight was only building the remote control, the FBI undercover agents needed to be sure that he knew the remote was for a weapon. Using the code words, they questioned Feight about what exactly he was building. Feight wasn’t under any illusions. “I started seeing how things, the direction things were going and then certainly after the elections,” Feight told the agents, referring to Obama’s election in 2008. “It’s like, well, OK, you know [what] that old saying is, right? You know, the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” He added a moment later: “In for a penny, in for a pound.”
Crawford and Feight began building their device. On the afternoon of June 18, 2013, in a warehouse the FBI had wired with cameras, one of the undercover agents watched as Crawford worked on the purported “death ray.” Wearing gloves and holding a screwdriver, Crawford leaned against the power supply, which was encased in a large, black metal box. “You’re actually transforming energy from electrical energy to ionizing radiation,” he explained to the agent.
Less than a minute later, an FBI SWAT team carrying assault rifles kicked in the door. “FBI! Get down! Get down!” they shouted. Crawford raised his hands in shock. An agent then forced Crawford onto his belly and handcuffed him.
FBI agents raided a warehouse, where they’d installed hidden cameras, as Crawford attempted to build his “death ray.” An undercover agent, whose face is blurred, talked to Crawford as he assembled the device. Video: FBI
Federal prosecutors first charged Crawford with providing material support, but later dropped that charge in favor of allegations that he’d conspired to use a radiological dispersal device and a weapon of mass destruction. Feight, who was arrested later, was charged with providing material support.
Crawford was convicted at trial and sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. Feight pleaded guilty and received a little more than eight years; he is due to be released next year.
On December 19, 2016, when Crawford was sentenced, McCord was the acting assistant attorney general in charge of the National Security Division. “Glendon Scott Crawford is an extremist who planned to use a radiological dispersal device to target unsuspecting Muslim Americans with lethal doses of radiation,” she said in a Justice Department statement at the time. “The National Security Division’s highest priority is counterterrorism, and we will continue to pursue justice against anyone who seeks to perpetrate attacks against Americans on our soil.”
Notably, as is still customary for Justice Department officials discussing domestic extremists, McCord did not label Crawford a terrorist. She missed an ideal opportunity to shout it from the rooftops.
Asked about this recently, McCord explained that she had probably been leery of using the word “terrorist” to avoid prejudicing a jury. It’s a concern that federal prosecutors never seem to show for international terrorism defendants.
“Glendon Scott Crawford is a domestic terrorist,” McCord said, “and I should have called him that.”
Joe Dibee’s 12 years on the lam came to an end last August, when Cuban authorities detained the 50-year-old environmental activist during a layover in Havana and turned him over to the United States.
More than a decade earlier, police and FBI agents had arrested a dozen of Dibee’s associates in the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front within the span of a few months. They were charged with conspiring to burn down factories that slaughtered animals for meat, timber mills that disrupted sensitive ecosystems, government facilities that penned wild horses, and a ski resort perched on a pristine mountaintop. Dibee, a former Microsoft software tester known for his ingenuity, had slipped away in the midst of it all.
While the arsons, which never hurt or killed anyone, largely took place in the late 1990s, the wave of arrests known as the “Green Scare” came in the post-9/11 era, when terrorism was the FBI’s prevailing obsession. The fur and biomedical industries had spent years lobbying the Justice Department and lawmakers to go after eco-activists, who had damaged their property, held audacious demonstrations decrying their business activities, and cost them millions of dollars. When the planes hit the twin towers, industry groups seized on the opportunity to push legislation, and federal law enforcement ramped up pursuit of radical activists in the name of counterterrorism.
Michael B. Ward of the FBI’s counterterrorism division speaks at a press conference on Nov. 19, 2008, about a reward for the capture of four Operation Backfire fugitives. With Ward is Portland Assistant Special Agent in Charge Daniel Nielsen.
So-called eco-terrorism became the Justice Department’s No. 1 domestic terror concern — “over the likes of white supremacists, militias, and anti-abortion groups,” as one senator pointed out at the time. Operation Backfire, which sent Dibee running, was the climax of the crackdown. “There was money, there was administrative support, there was management support,” said Jane Quimby, a retired FBI agent who worked on Backfire. The results were “an affirmation that given the resources that you need, and the support that you need, you can really make these things work.”
In 2009, when a Department of Homeland Security intelligence report raised alarms about the rising threat of right-wing extremist violence, it provoked a very different response. After outcry from conservative groups, DHS backtracked on the report and later disbanded the domestic terrorism unit that produced it.
Daryl Johnson, a former domestic terrorism analyst at DHS, says there’s a reason law enforcement took a less aggressive approach to right-wing white supremacists and anti-government attackers. In the case of the eco-extremists, the government had a powerful ally: industry. “You don’t have a bunch of companies coming forward saying I wish you’d do something about these right-wing extremists,” said Johnson, who left his position in 2010, after his warnings about right-wing violence were dismissed. “If enough people lobbied congresspeople about white nationalists and how it’s affecting their business activity, then I’m sure you’ll get legislation.”
Now, in the wake of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer by white supremacist James Alex Fields, past and current Justice Department officials have argued that a new domestic terrorism statute is necessary to better respond to far-right violence.
But law enforcement and federal prosecutors already have powerful counterterrorism authorities at their disposal, and their history of using them to go after radical activists who committed property crimes suggests that any new crackdown is likely to sweep up far more than domestic extremists who pose a lethal threat.
No new law was required to treat eco-saboteurs as terrorists in the wake of 9/11. Of 70 federal prosecutions of radical environmentalists and animal rights activists identified by The Intercept, 52 did not result in charges under anti-terrorism laws. Yet the defendants were repeatedly called terrorists by the Justice Department in public statements and internal communications. The designation opened up additional resources and gave the government powerful leverage in the form of terrorism sentencing enhancements, which prosecutors sought in more than 20 cases.
Meanwhile, in the remaining 18 cases, prosecutors applied an anti-terrorism law written with the help of industry that was designed exclusively to target animal rights activists. Six cases involved activists releasing mink and vandalizing fur facilities, and six involved individuals accused of encouraging radical acts like sabotage but not participating in any themselves. Four of the cases involved activists protesting outside researchers’ homes and were dismissed because the allegations were too vague.
The story of how years of corporate lobbying ended with Dibee in cuffs contains lessons for those considering how to handle the surge in right-wing violence, as well as for a new generation of environmental activists again facing accusations of eco-terrorism.
Joe Dibee grew up camping in the spectacular forests, mountains, and coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest. His parents, members of Syria’s Catholic minority, had immigrated to the U.S. before he was born, settling into Seattle’s middle class. His mother worked at the public library and his father was a finance professor at Seattle University, where Dibee would eventually study civil engineering and general science. Dibee came of age just as law enforcement in the U.S. was beginning to take notice of the budding animal rights movement.
In 1977, when he was 9 years old, a group called the Undersea Railroad released two dolphins from a University of Hawaii marine laboratory — the first known animal liberation in U.S. history. A countermovement was rapidly launched, led by organizations like the National Association for Biomedical Research, which lobbies for the use of live animals in scientific research.
NABR and other industry groups were way ahead of law enforcement in gathering intelligence on the animal rights movement, and federal agents were happy to make use of the information. In March 1987, for example, FBI agents met with NABR about four chimpanzees that had been abducted from a research laboratory. The group “maintains a large intelligence file on the activities of most of the significant animal rights groups in the world,” an agent noted after the meeting, and “furnished the FBI with many documents which deal with these groups as well as outline their significant activities dating back to 1976.”
In 1987, the National Association for Biomedical Research supplied the FBI with documents about the activities of animal rights groups going back more than a decade, according to an FBI memo provided to The Intercept by Property of the People. The transparency organization redacted the names of activists who did not grant permission to be identified, to protect their privacy.
In 1987, an animal diagnostics laboratory under construction at the University of California, Davis was burned to the ground — the first U.S. arson claimed by ALF. It was meant “to retaliate in the name of thousands of animals tortured each year in campus labs,” a communique from the saboteurs said.
A month after the arson, a Justice Department public information officer sent a letter to the Fur Retailers Information Council, whose members had also been targeted by the Animal Liberation Front. “I encourage you to send to me any evidence you have indicating criminal activity committed by animal rights activists,” the official wrote. “I am happy to be of assistance to the Fur Retailers Information Council.”
In response, the industry group worked with the Justice Department to create “a directory of some 200 animal rights and animal welfare organizations operating in North America which provides office addresses, names of officers and spokespersons, and a diary of incidents,” according to an October 1988 letter from the council.
The Fur Retailers Information Council worked with the Justice Department to create a directory of 200 animal rights and animal welfare organizations, according to a 1988 letter from the organization.
“We would occasionally contact the [FBI] to ensure they were aware of a threat or action involving animal extremism. We also sent FBI officials occasional alerts about animal rights actions or threats that might be considered illegal,” said Jim Newman, a spokesperson for Americans for Medical Progress, a nonprofit funded by the biomedical industry to foster support for animal research. “There was no concerted effort in place.” The other groups did not respond to requests for comment, and a spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment.
In some cases, corporations went beyond intelligence sharing to actively ferreting out activists they viewed as threats. One of the strangest efforts involved Leon Hirsch, a manufacturer of surgical staples whose sales demonstrations involved cutting open live beagles and stapling them back together. His company, United States Surgical Corporation, paid a security firm called Perceptions International to infiltrate the animal rights movement.
Mary Lou Sapone, the firm’s undercover agent, befriended a troubled activist named Fran Trutt, who was subsequently accused of planting a pipe bomb at the headquarters of the surgical corporation in an attempt to murder Hirsch. But Trutt was on the phone with Sapone throughout the day before the alleged murder attempt, and another undercover operative working for the company actually drove her to the crime scene and gave her money for the pipe bomb. Trutt pleaded no contest to attempted murder charges. Despite industry’s role in manufacturing the incident, it would later be presented in a key report to Congress as the only “confirmed case” of an animal rights activist using an incendiary device “with intent of harming an individual.”
Industry groups also lobbied for federal legislation that would heighten penalties for activist tactics. “The DOJ has advised that there is significant special interest pressure on Congress to pass legislation which would protect animal and health research property, facilities and personnel from attacks,” according to a 1990 FBI memo.
Two years later, Congress enacted the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, which created a new crime of “animal enterprise terrorism.” The law was aimed at anyone who physically disrupted or conspired to disrupt an animal enterprise by intentionally damaging or causing the loss of its property. It created a legal pathway to imprison a broad range of saboteurs and their allies.
But the AEPA didn’t lead to the kind of crackdown the biomedical and fur lobbyists sought. The law was used only once before the turn of the century, in the prosecution of two activists who released mink from Wisconsin fur farms. And although the FBI charged a few individuals for eco-arsons throughout the 1990s, it would be the next generation of saboteurs — Dibee’s generation — that would bear the brunt of the government’s crackdown on eco-radicals.
Radical Tactics Reach Their Peak
By the late 1990s, Dibee was known within activist circles, regularly participating in spectacular demonstrations designed to draw attention to moneymaking activity built on animal and ecological suffering.
At the Warner Creek occupation in 1995, activists blockaded a logging road to prevent a timber company from accessing Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. The occupation lasted for nearly a year, thanks in part to 28-year-old Dibee, who designed a “bipod” structure, a precariously rigged platform between two tall poles where activists perched, complicating police efforts to remove them. The federal government, which managed the national forest land, put the company’s timber harvest on hold, as well as 150 other timber sales.
In the summer of 1997, Dibee was involved in another dramatic action, this time to protest the overfishing of pollock in the Bering Sea and the harm it was causing the endangered Steller sea lion. Seven Greenpeace activists planned to dangle from ropes off Seattle’s Aurora Bridge, more than 200 feet above Lake Union, in an effort to block four giant American Seafoods trawlers from entering Puget Sound. A skilled climber, Dibee was to position himself underneath the bridge, maneuvering along its metal support structure to assist the other climbers as needed.
Seven Greenpeace demonstrators make their way up ropes toward the deck of Seattle’s Aurora Bridge on Aug. 18, 1997, after being suspended for two days to protest factory fishing.
Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP
As the action kicked off, police confiscated critical gear, leaving the activistswith nothing to protect the nylon webbing keeping them aloft from abrading and tearing against the sharp edges of the bridge beams. Determined that the action should move forward, Dibee stripped off his clothing to use as buffer material. He would spend nearly two days half-naked above the windy channel, fighting hypothermia.
“There was a lot of this macho ‘me big eco-warrior’ thing, where the guys just wanted to be rock stars,” said Helga Kahr, an activist and friend of Dibee’s. But despite his willingness to take risks, she added, “Joe was not like that.” He sewed specialized backpacks for fellow activists, trained friends in computer encryption, and donated money to whatever corner of the movement needed it.
Few of his comrades were aware, however, that Dibee was also involved in the controversial eco-radical underground. In July 1997, the Associated Press published an investigation revealing that 90 percent of the horses rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program ended up in slaughterhouses. Among the buyers named in the article was the Cavel West slaughterhouse. According to court filings, Dibee and four other animal rights activists came up with a plot to strike back.
The activists surrounded the Cavel West facility in Redmond, Oregon, and planted incendiary devices fueled by so-called vegan jello — a mixture of soap and petroleum. They timed them to go off at an hour when they believed the facility would be empty, then fled, stopping to dump their clothing in a hole, which they covered with acid and filled with dirt. An anonymous communique attributed the action to the Animal Liberation Front and the Equine and Zebra Liberation Front. The facility burned to the ground and did not reopen.
The fur and biomedical industries “dramatically increased their efforts to convince the FBI and the DOJ to treat animal rights and environmental protesters as terrorists.”
During the same period, other activists burned down a Forest Service ranger station, set SUVs on fire, and toppled an 80-foot high-voltage transmission tower. The attacks and demonstrations were costly. In response, the fur and biomedical industries “dramatically increased their efforts to convince the FBI and the DOJ to treat animal rights and environmental protesters as terrorists,” said Shapiro of Property of the People. “This was the true genesis of the Green Scare.”
It wasn’t just about arson. Patti Strand, a Dalmatian breeder and co-founder of the National Animal Interest Alliance, which works to “promote responsible animal ownership and use, and to oppose animal rights extremism,” said that after she published her 1998 book on animal extremism she was targeted by radical activists. They put dead animals and garter snakes in her mailbox. “I received letters that included information about my son, who was 11 at the time — what path he was taking to school and that they liked his new green jacket,” she said. When others who had been targeted reached out to Strand with their stories — “If their fences were cut, if there were lawsuits that were going on, if they had started to receive death threats or things that were intimidating” — she would pass along the details to the FBI.
By April 1998, the anti-environmental lobbying campaign was again bearing fruit. The Justice Department held a conference on animal rights terrorism and invited the executive director of the Fur Commission “to address the attendees with her perception of the animal rights terrorism trends, and recommended investigative aids,” according to an FBI summary of the event. Along with federal prosecutors, the attendees included officials from the FBI, the Justice Department’s terrorism and violent crime section, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
The Justice Department held a conference on animal rights terrorism in 1998, inviting the director of the Fur Commission to speak, according to an FBI memo.
Later that year, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “Acts of Ecoterrorism by Radical Environmental Organizations.” U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs, who had accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the forestry industry, described an activist stunt in which a large tree stump was dumped in the middle of his Northern California office. “My office was quite literally assaulted by a group of environmental terrorists,” he said. “Upon responding to the horrific sound, my two female staff members were greeted by the visage of several Earth First! terrorists, one wearing a black ski mask, and another wearing dark goggles and a hood.”
Photo: Jack Affleck/AP
In October 1998, in the midst of renewed focus on their activities, Earth Liberation Front activists raised the stakes. In the name of protecting lynx habitat, they burned down several buildings at a new ski resort near Vail, Colorado, causing $12 million worth of damage. “The environmental groups who have not just claimed credit, but in some cases have been proved to have committed criminal acts, are a very, very serious part of our domestic terrorism focus,” then-FBI Director Louis Freeh
told Congress a few months later.
The Fur Commission celebrated. “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,” according to a March 1999 newsletter. “These efforts have resulted in a strong statement of commitment from the FBI.”
Detective Greg Harvey joined the Eugene Police Department’s special investigations unit in June of that year. For the better part of the next decade, solving the string of ALF and ELF arsons would become his primary task.
Harvey’s work on the team coincided with an intense national tug of war over the meaning of terrorism. Indeed, Harvey had his own taxonomy. Blocking a road and trespassing? Not terrorism. The ALF and ELF arsonists? Not in the same category as international terrorists who kill people, but terrorists just the same. “Their whole intent is to change the way things are done,” Harvey told The Intercept. “They’re trying to close down businesses. Well, that’s terrorism. When the families or the workers are afraid to do something, that’s what I consider terrorism.”
“One of the things we were really trying to focus on was breaking the movement,” he said. Harvey and other law enforcement officials went after the group’s omerta — its staunch refusal to cooperate with authorities. “That was one of the things that we broke.”
But it would take a disaster even bigger than the Vail arson to give industry and law enforcement the political capital needed to cripple the movement. “They called us eco-terrorists before 9/11,” said John Sellers, former director of the Ruckus Society, which trains environmental justice organizers in direct action. “But no one really believed them.”
Protesters, some proclaiming to be supporters of the Earth Liberation Front, march in Portland, Ore., on Feb. 12, 2002.
Photo: Don Ryan/AP
From 9/11 to the Green Scare
Rescue workers were only beginning to survey the damage when Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young picked up a call from an Anchorage Daily News reporter on September 11, 2001. Few details had emerged about who was behind the attacks, but Young was unfazed. “War has been declared as far as terrorists go,” he told the newspaper. “I’m not sure they’re that dedicated, but eco-terrorists — which are really based in Seattle — there’s a strong possibility that could be one of the groups” behind the assault.
Young’s remarks were prescient: Eco-saboteurs would become one of the U.S. government’s lesser-known war on terror adversaries. September 11 was a crisis perfectly suited to the groundwork industry groups had laid in the 1990s, and corporate actors stood ready to exploit it. It didn’t hurt that the saboteurs aligned themselves against capitalism, which was being defended as critical to America’s suddenly imperiled way of life. With political careers freshly dependent on hammering terrorism, eco-sabotage became an easy target.
The attacks “did not set off the Green Scare,” Shapiro said. Instead, “9/11 was exploited by Green Scare warriors to turn up the volume on their surveillance and suppression of the animal rights and eco movements.”
The Patriot Act’s broad new definition of domestic terrorism, signed into law in October 2001, was another step toward institutionalizing the notion that eco-saboteurs were terrorists. The law targets those who commit criminal acts “dangerous to human life” that “appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or influence government policy. It also made it easier for the FBI to wiretap and surveil U.S. citizens. Even though a core tenet of ALF and ELF was to avoid harming living things, the Justice Department considered the movement’s acts of arson and vandalism dangerous enough to count.
Craig Rosebraugh, a spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front, on May 24, 2001, in Portland, Ore.
Photo: Jack Smith/AP
Less than a week after the law’s passage, Craig Rosebraugh, a spokesperson for ELF and ALF, received a subpoena to testify before members of Congress at a hearing on eco-terrorism. Rosebraugh had been profiled in news articles as the face of the movement, even though his role was to publish anonymous communiques rather than conduct acts of sabotage.
At the hearing, representatives from both parties offered anti-ALF and ELF soliloquies. “On the morning of December 28, the employees of U.S. Forest Industries arrived at work to find their offices smoldering. The scene is reminiscent of what we saw of the damaged part of the Pentagon after September 11,” said Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden. “It didn’t take a jetliner to destroy this office. An ELF firebomb did the job. And while fortunately there was no loss of life, the destruction was just as severe.”
The domestic terrorism section chief of the FBI, James Jarboe, announced that ALF and ELF were “the No. 1 priority in the domestic terrorism program.”
Rosebraugh tried to turn the tables on his accusers. “If the U.S. government is truly concerned with eradicating terrorism in the world, then that effort must begin with abolishing U.S. imperialism,” he wrote in prepared remarks. “Members of this governing body, both in the House and Senate as well as those who hold positions in the executive branch, constitute the largest group of terrorists and terrorist representatives currently threatening life on this planet.”
Lawmakers at the hearing proposed various legislative fixes, including an Agroterrorism Prevention Act, which would have made activists eligible for the death penalty if someone were to die in one of the arsons. That bill was never passed, but another proposal — an expansion of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act — did become law, with help from industry.
In tandem with politicians’ maneuvers, Quimby and the other law enforcement officers assigned to the arsons were doubling down on capturing the saboteurs. In the summer of 2001, they had met to discuss how they could crack open what had become stubbornly cold cases. “We decided we were going to be much more overt, and we were going to go start knocking on doors,” Quimby said.
Armed with a list of 30 to 40 targets, the lead agent on the case began popping up in coffee shops and neighborhoods where he knew activists would recognize him. “You start to induce a little bit of paranoia,” Quimby explained. The idea was that the activists would start thinking, “Are they on to us? Are they watching me? Are they on my phone? Are they monitoring my email account?” she told The Intercept. “It sewed some seeds of doubt.”
“They called us eco-terrorists before 9/11, but no one really believed them.”
Eugene detective Harvey’s job was to remain unseen. “I lived in the shadows. I basically sat in my car, watching people, buildings,” he said. At one point, he said, he spent hours sitting outside the Castle Superstore where one of the activists worked, in the hopes that Dibee would show up to visit.
The operation zeroed in on Jake Ferguson, who was suspected of being one of the most prolific arsonists. “We were following around Jake Ferguson for months and months,” said Harvey. “You’re looking at a heroin user, which makes him unbelievably paranoid.” Agents from multiple states moved into a shared office in Eugene, where the walls were papered with charts, photos, and timelines.
Quimby doesn’t fully credit 9/11 for the intensified investigation. But “there’s no question that funding that became available as a result of 9/11 may not have been there” if not for the attacks, she said. The ALF and ELF cases “became a priority and a very visible priority.”
By the end of 2001, however, Dibee and fellow activists had begun to move away from radical protest tactics like arson, according to Lauren Regan, a lawyer who would later represent one of the Backfire defendants. “It was causing division, because there was no way to control who was doing what,” she said. “They felt as if, sooner or later, some wildcard would potentially screw something up and kill themselves or kill someone else.” An October 2001 arson, of a hay barn at a Bureau of Land Management holding facility for wild horses, would be the last fire prosecutors attributed to Dibee and other Backfire defendants.
Dibee also had a falling out with one of his closest collaborators in the movement, Jonathan Paul. Paul had participated in the Cavel West arson, and he and Dibee had co-founded an organization called Sea Defense Alliance, which sought to physically disrupt the Makah people’s whale hunt (an action that is hard to imagine in today’s environmental movement, which seeks to follow the lead of Indigenous people).
The two activists sued each other over ownership of the organization’s boat, and at one point, Dibee drove toward Paul’s home with a gun, allegedly planning to confront him, according to law enforcement accounts included in federal court filings. But Dibee got lost and was pulled over by police, and the meeting was averted.
For a time, Dibee appeared to move on with his life, maintaining his adrenaline high by racing cars and flying planes. But the Backfire case was about to break. In 2003, Ferguson, who had a young child to consider, agreed to wear a wire and travel around the U.S., visiting his activist friends and convincing them to talk about the old days.
Photo: Mel Evans/AP
Breaking the Movement
Among the earliest casualties of the Green Scare was a group known as the SHAC 7. After reporters and undercover activists obtained disturbing footage from inside the laboratories of the research company Huntingdon Life Sciences, a campaign called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty emerged to shut it down. The nerve center of the campaign was a website where administrators posted communiques describing protest actions that targeted not just Huntingdon, but any company or individual that supported it — from clients to investment firms to the club where the CEO played golf. In response to persistent disruptions, dozens of companies severed ties with Huntingdon.
In January 2004, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful organization whose members include legislators and corporate lobbyists, released draft legislation meant to strengthen the Animal Enterprise Protection Act to make it even easier to crack down on activist groups like SHAC. Under ALEC’s model, titled the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act,” filming an animal facility without the owners’ consent could be prosecuted as terrorism. ALEC’s version would also have created a “terrorist registry” of anyone convicted under the law.
But prosecutors didn’t need ALEC’s draft legislation to go after SHAC. A few months after the proposal was finalized, seven SHAC organizers were arrested and six were later sentenced to prison terms under the original version of AEPA. They were accused of encouraging and publicizing radical tactics, but not participating in acts of sabotage themselves.
Nor did authorities need a new anti-terrorism law to go after the ALF and ELF arsonists. In December 2005, FBI agents carried out simultaneous arrests in five states. Over the next year, 18 alleged ALF and ELF saboteurs would be accused of participating in a domestic terrorism conspiracy. The feds interviewed Dibee. Then he disappeared.
The pressure on the eco-radicals to inform on their friends in exchange for reduced prison time was immense. Hanging over their heads were terrorism sentencing enhancements developed in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which could increase prison time for a specific list of crimes if they were “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.” Among the charges that fit the enhancement were arsons of buildings involved in interstate commerce or belonging to the U.S. government.
Given the prison time at stake, with some facing possible life sentences, nearly every activist shared information. “Some named every name they could,” Harvey said, while others “listed involvement without naming names.”
Prosecutors declined to negotiate with the handful of defendants who refused to cooperate, according to Regan. But that changed overnight, she said, after defense lawyers issued an extensive motion demanding the government reveal whether the National Security Agency or FBI had used warrantless wiretapping or Patriot Act-authorized surveillance against the activists. When the judge supported the motion, and prosecutors changed their tune. “They said, ‘OK, we’ll do a noncooperating plea deal if you’ll drop this motion,’” Regan recalled.
“If I had to choose who was the greater threat, I would obviously go with the ones who were killing people.”
A narrower version of ALEC’s law, introduced by Republican Sen. James Inhofe and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, passed the following November. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, or AETA, left out much of ALEC’s wish list, limiting the law to animal enterprises rather than actions targeting mining, timber harvesting, and fossil fuel extraction. However, it succeeded in criminalizing “interference” in the activities of any entity with a connection to an animal enterprise, a lower bar than AEPA’s “physical disruption.” It also increased the maximum penalty for causing economic damage, from three years in prison to 20, and allowed for up to five years in prison if an action simply caused someone a “reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death.”
The section that would have criminalized filming at animal facilities was picked up by state lawmakers across the U.S. — “ag gag” bills became law in nine states, though they’ve been overturned as unconstitutional in three, and legal battles continue.
Twelve of the Backfire defendants received terrorism enhancements. They were sentenced to between one and 12 years in prison. One defendant’s status as a “terrorist” was later used to justify his transfer to a communications management unit, where his contact with friends, family, and the public was severely limited.
But it wasn’t prison time that most deeply undermined the movement. “The level of betrayal that took place during the Green Scare and the number of hardcore activists that basically crumbled under minor pressure by the state to become snitches or informants really shook the foundations of the radical movement,” Regan said. “It was very, very difficult for a lot of people to organize and trust each other in the aftermath of that shakeup.”
As for Dibee, the FBI suspected that he sheltered with relatives in Syria. Friends thought he might have died in the violent civil war there. One by one, the other Backfire fugitives were picked up. After 30-year-old New Jersey native Justin Solondz was arrested on drug charges in 2009 in the backpacker community of Dali, China, he pleaded guilty in the U.S. to firebombing the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture. Thirty-nine-year-old Rebecca Rubin, who had been hiding in her home nation of Canada, turned herself in in 2012, exhausted by years when “she was forced to live in what is, in some ways, a prison without walls,” as her lawyer told a Maclean’s reporter. She pleaded guilty to freeing wild horses and helping with the Vail arson.
While Dibee was on the lam, Obama’s election drove much of the environmental movement’s energy toward legislative change and away from direct action. The Intercept identified only 13 eco-activist cases prosecuted federally after 2008 — all but two charged under AETA. Six of the cases involved activists freeing mink from fur farms — actions that could hardly be considered terrorism even under the Patriot Act’s broad definition. Four more of the cases were dismissed. “The primary purpose of these laws is to try and brand activists as terrorists in order to turn public opinion against their advocacy and their campaigns,” Regan said.
Meanwhile, Democratic leadership failed to deliver any meaningful response to the deepening climate crisis and resulting biodiversity loss. Rising ocean temperatures caused the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which Dibee had visited as a kid, to bleach and die. Wildfires burned with more intensity through the desiccated Pacific Northwest forests that he’d fought to protect from the timber industry. Orca whale populations shrunk to perilous levels off the coast of Washington state. And Donald Trump was elected president, paving the way to reverse even the minor steps the Obama administration had taken to challenge corporate polluters.
Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times via Redux
A Rising Threat Dismissed
Daryl Johnson started at the Department of Homeland Security as a domestic terrorism analyst when eco-terrorism was still one of its major priorities. He didn’t have a problem with that. “I still believe they’re terroristic threats, because it’s ideologically motivated violence against property,” he said. “But if I had to choose who was the greater threat, I would obviously go with the ones who were killing people.”
By 2009, Johnson had come to see right-wing extremism as a severe, rising threat. That April, he became the lead author on an intelligence assessment that found that right-wing movements were using Obama’s election as a recruiting tool. That same month, three police officers in Pittsburgh were ambushed and killed by a man who regularly posted on the white supremacist website Stormfront. “Lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States,” the report concluded.
The report was leaked, and the backlash was swift. Conservative groups were particularly offended by its suggestion that veterans might be vulnerable to recruitment by far-right groups. Everyone from Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner to the American Legion released statements deriding it.
At first, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano defended Johnson’s work. “We must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence,” she said in a statement a week after the report was published. But after 20 conservative groups put out ads calling for her to resign, she backtracked, claiming there had been a breakdown in internal review processes and promising to replace the report.
“Their whole intent is to change the way things are done. … Well, that’s terrorism.
In contrast to the crackdown on eco-radicals, DHS stepped back from focusing on domestic terrorism altogether. Johnson’s unit was gutted, and he left the agency along with many of his peers.
“It sent a chilling effect in the law enforcement and intelligence community. They saw what happened to me and how my unit was politicized,” he told The Intercept. As a result, “you have 10 years of attacks almost,” said Johnson, who now works as a consultant on domestic extremism. “Lots of people have died. The threat [of far-right groups] is still very active right now, and so it’s thriving.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League, between 2002 and 2018, 80 percent of extremist-related murders in the U.S. were carried out by people linked to right-wing movements. Only 3 percent were linked to left-wing ideologies, and 17 percent to Islamic movements. Every single extremist killing in 2018 — 50 in all — had a link to a right-wing movement.
Will Potter, a journalist and civil liberties advocate whose work focuses on the persecution of protesters as terrorists, argues that the federal focus on animal rights activists over right-wing extremists was driven by more than corporate lobbying. “Beliefs that motivate [animal rights] activists were presented as this ideological threat to core concepts that underpin what some people think it means to be an American — defense of capitalism, a religiously aligned state, defense of industry, the belief that humans are exceptional.”
In contrast, many of America’s foundational values — Christianity, individualism, gun rights, and white supremacy — align with those of right-wing extremists. As Johnson put it, right-wing groups “operate under some of the same values that [I], an FBI agent, might believe.”
Shapiro went even further: “No shit the FBI doesn’t like to go after right-wing groups. They’re on the same team.”
Photo: John Lovretta/The Hawk Eye via AP
A New Generation
In October 2016, as thousands of opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline gathered in protest camps in North Dakota, activists simultaneously turned above-ground valves on five tar sands oil pipelines across the U.S., shutting off the oil’s flow in solidarity with the Standing Rock tribe. They livestreamed the actions and stayed on site, awaiting arrest.
Less than a year later, holes burned using welding tools began appearing on valves along the Dakota Access pipeline. Two pipeline activists, Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, called a press conference to claim responsibility for the sabotage.
In response to the resurgence of direct action tactics, 84 members of Congress, including four Democrats, sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions in October 2017 asking whether “the attacks against this nation’s energy infrastructure, which pose a threat to human life, and appear to be intended to intimidate and coerce policy changes,” fell within the Justice Department’s understanding of domestic terrorism.
“Just because time passes doesn’t mean the FBI forgets.”
The American Petroleum Institute praised the letter and told the industry publication Natural Gas Intelligence that the group was working with the Trump administration on the issue, including the Justice Department and the FBI. “A key component of securing our nation’s energy infrastructure is ensuring that law enforcement has the tools needed to prosecute those who attack it,” an institute spokesperson said.
As if on cue, ALEC entered the fray. By December 2017, it had introduced a model Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, which would increase penalties for trespassing on or inhibiting the operations of oil and gas pipelines. Under the model, “conspirator” organizations, such as activist groups, would face a fine several times that of the trespasser. Eight states are considering versions of the law, and industry groups and oil and gas companies, including Dakota Access parent company Energy Transfer Partners, have been lobbying on its behalf.
“It’s the corporate state bringing out the same old tired playbook and repeating the same plays again and again,” said Regan.
While legislators’ efforts haven’t yet translated into Green Scare-style prosecutions, their enthusiasm reveals that the anti-eco-terror framework built in the 1990s and strengthened in the wake of 9/11 could easily be deployed again.
On August 10, the FBI held a press conference to announce it had captured Dibee. “Just because time passes doesn’t mean the FBI forgets,” FBI agent Tim Suttles, who worked the Operation Backfire case for 14 years, said in a statement. “We are very gratified to have Dibee in custody.”
Dibee’s lawyer declined to comment. But if his case turns out like those of his co-defendants, he’ll probably negotiate a guilty plea. The judge is likely to consider a terrorism enhancement, and Dibee will be sentenced to years in prison.
Harvey, the Oregon detective who spent years trying to catch Dibee, learned of the arrest from a friend who’s still working on the case. “I was extremely happy,” he told The Intercept.
Quimby, the former FBI agent, was similarly gratified. “When Joe was picked up, it was sort of cool, like one more down, one to go.”
But she knows it’s not over. One Backfire defendant, Josephine Overaker, remains missing. “She speaks fluent Spanish and may seek employment as a firefighter, midwife, sheep tender, or masseuse,” the FBI said in its press release announcing Dibee’s capture.
“With Overaker still out there the case isn’t closed,” Quimby said. “It won’t be until she comes into custody.”
Source documents used in this reporting were obtained by Property of the People and shared exclusively with The Intercept. You can learn more about Property of the People’s work litigating Freedom of Information Act requests here.
Hours after police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown on a quiet suburban street in Ferguson, Missouri, Olajuwon Ali Davis stood with a few dozen people on that same street. As the impromptu candlelight vigil that August night in 2014 turned into a historic wave of nationwide protests against police violence, Davis, wearing a black Malcolm X T-shirt, was among the first to lift his hands in surrender, as Brown was rumored to have been doing when Wilson shot him.
Within days, the gesture became the symbol of a movement for police accountability and racial justice the nation had not seen since the civil rights era. And the refrain protesters began chanting that night — “Hands up, don’t shoot” — would soon be replaced by one that would echo across the country for years to come: Black lives matter.
Davis, who was 22 at the time, kept showing up as the protests grew larger and angrier, and as scores of law enforcement descended on Ferguson wearing riot gear and firing tear gas. Days after Brown’s death, during a short-lived break in the looting and police violence, Davis was photographed wearing all black and directing traffic; the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which he had joined on the heels of Brown’s killing, was keeping the peace.
Days later, Davis emailed a local reporter who had covered the NBPP’s peacekeeping efforts to thank him for portraying “the true nature and the intent” of the party, which, despite taking its name, is not affiliated with the Black Panther Party of the 1960s. “For the record we the NBPP and its local chapter members have and never [sic] promoted acts of violence towards anyone or any establishment or businesses,” Davis wrote to the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis weekly. “True enough there are people so angry that they show their pain and emotions with aggression towards cops and frankly anything that they can get their hands on. But let these few not distort the genuine peaceful intention and benevolence of the NBPP.”
Three months later, Davis and another young man named Brandon Orlando Baldwin were arrested in an FBI sting and accused of planning to plant bombs, kill officials connected to the Brown case, and blow up St. Louis’s iconic Gateway Arch.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Three years later, the FBI listed Davis’s case in a secret memo warning of the rise of a “black identity extremist” movement whose members’ “perceptions of police brutality against African Americans” spurred what the FBI claimed was “an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement.” Although Baldwin was convicted of the same crimes, the FBI report inexplicably only mentioned one suspect.
The “black identity extremism” report was prepared by the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit, part of the bureau’s Counterterrorism Division, and was distributed to scores of local and federal law enforcement partners across the country. Although Davis and Baldwin were not charged under anti-terrorism laws, they do appear to be the first individuals retroactively labeled by the FBI as “black identity extremists.”
The FBI report was written six months into the Trump administration — as white supremacist groups felt emboldened by support for their ideology seemingly coming from the very top of the government — and was released only a week before the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist ran down and killed Heather Heyer. When the report was leaked to Foreign Policy later in 2017, it prompted fierce and widespread criticism from activists, civil rights advocates, and lawmakers, many of whom accused the FBI of reverting to the surveillance and sabotage of black activists that had defined its activities in the civil rights era.
Critics called the report’s contents “fiction,” “fantasy,” “weak” and “irresponsible.” Several noted that it seemed designed to distract attention from the reality of police abuse against minorities. “The feds have invented a title — BIE — and linked it to a handful of episodes of violence,” wrote Andrew Cohen, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “To deflect legitimate criticism of police tactics, to undermine a legitimate protest movement that has emerged in the past three years to protest police brutality, the FBI has tarred the dissenters as domestic terrorists, an organized group with a criminal ideology that are a threat to police officers.”
“Whenever you create an assumption that somebody poses a physical threat to law enforcement, that provides incentive for law enforcement to shoot first and ask questions later.”
The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which includes leaders of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, called for the classification to be eliminated. “This assessment resurrects the historically negative legacy of African American civil rights leaders who were unconstitutionally targeted and attacked by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies for seeking full U.S. citizenship under the law,” the group wrote in a statement.
Yet even more worrisome than the report’s political implications is the immediate threat to life that labeling someone a “terrorist” can pose, especially as the FBI has no way to monitor what law enforcement departments do with the reports it distributes. For many black people, already accustomed to being uniquely vulnerable to police violence, the fear is that being viewed as potential terrorists for expressing legitimate political grievances might give police license to target them even more intensely than they already do.
“Not only can they go after these people with surveillance, but they can then justify using the most aggressive, violent tactics,” said Justin Hansford, a St. Louis activist and law professor who heads the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University. “Whenever you create an assumption that somebody poses a physical threat to law enforcement, that provides incentive for law enforcement to shoot first and ask questions later.”
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in December 2017, shortly after the report was leaked to the press, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the FBI investigates as domestic terrorism only cases involving federal crimes that include the use or attempted use of violence in furtherance of political or social goals. “We don’t have that, we don’t investigate,” Wray said. “It doesn’t matter whether they are right-wing, left-wing, or any other wing.”
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
“We take respect for the First Amendment very seriously, and in this context, as in every other domestic terrorism context, we want to be very clear with people, and all the American people, that we do not investigate rhetoric, ideology, opinion, no matter who might consider it extremist,” he added. “What we do investigate is when rhetoric, ideology, opinion takes that next step into the category of federal crime and of particular violence.”
At the hearing, Wray said that the “black identity extremism” report was based on both open-source information and ongoing FBI investigations. He also said, citing no specific numbers, that the bureau had “about 50 percent more” investigations of white supremacists than it did of “black identity extremists.” In subsequent meetings with lawmakers, he said he was unfamiliar with any investigations of “black identity extremists.”
In a statement to The Intercept, a spokesperson for the FBI wrote that the agency “does not police ideology.” The bureau, she added, will only initiate an investigation if there is an allegation of a federal crime or a threat to national security. “Our focus is not on membership in particular groups but on criminal activity,” the spokesperson wrote. “When an individual takes violent action based on belief or ideology — and breaks the law — the FBI will enforce the rule of law. The FBI cannot initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or the exercise of their constitutional rights, and we remain committed to protecting those rights for all Americans.”
The FBI declined to answer The Intercept’s questions about how various ideologies are presented, downplayed, or emphasized in threat assessment reports that the agency routinely circulates to law enforcement, or about how those reports might impact surveillance and policing of targeted communities, regardless of the threats they pose. At the 2017 Judiciary Committee hearing, as well as at a second hearing before the same committee in June 2018, Wray also failed to address those questions.
“My big concern is that local law enforcement will misinterpret that and will clamp down on people exercising their First Amendment rights,” Rep. Karen Bass, one of the report’s fiercest critics in Congress, told him at the first hearing.
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
It’s unclear how the “black identity extremism” report has been used by local law enforcement agencies. But if the threat is as serious as the FBI report implies, that hasn’t turned into successful federal prosecutions. According to
The Intercept’s analysis, Davis and Olajuwon’s case was the only federal prosecution of individuals the FBI considers to be “black identity extremists” that resulted in a conviction. By comparison, the analysis found that 268 right-wing extremists were prosecuted in federal courts since 9/11 for crimes that appear to meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism, even though the Justice Department applied anti-terrorism laws against only 34 of them.
While severalnews reports referred to the case of Christopher Daniels, a Texas activist who advocated for the rights of black gun owners, as the first known prosecution of a “black identity extremist,” the FBI appears to have retroactively used that label to refer to individuals it started surveilling as early as 2014, on the heels of the Ferguson protests. Daniels, who also went by the name Rakem Balogun, was indicted of a weapons offense months after the release of the FBI report, but a judge dismissed the charge last May. The FBI declined to comment on any of these cases, as well as on the origins of the “black identity extremist” label.
“This was literally picking six random events and then imagining a movement around them.”
None of the other five individuals referenced in the FBI’s 2017 report were federally prosecuted. They include three black men who attacked and, in two cases, killed, police officers in New York, Baton Rouge, and Dallas, though the FBI’s report fails to connect their actions to any specific group or clear ideology. A man who shot at two police stations in Indiana in October 2016 and another who drove his car toward three police officers in Arizona in September 2016 — both of whom were prosecuted on state charges — also appear to have acted independently of any groups or discernible ideology. Three were killed by police on the scene.
Davis himself, while he had recently joined the New Black Panther Party, was found to have plotted the St. Louis bombings without the group’s knowledge or support. And he was also known to police as a devotee of the Moorish Science Temple of America, a black variation of the overwhelmingly white sovereign citizen movement, a domestic extremist ideology well known to the FBI.
The only connection between the six men referenced in the report, besides their race, is a thread of anger at police that is common among tens of thousands of Americans who never committed or intended to commit acts of violence. “In all of them, there is no connection to any national movement; the cases are not linked in any way,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent and a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. “This was literally picking six random events and then imagining a movement around them.”
“This is not just a failure of an intelligence product, but a dangerous intelligence product,” German added. “It spreads misinformation rather than intelligence.”
Photo: David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Polaris
The Bomb Plot
On November 21, 2014, three months after Brown’s killing, Davis and Baldwin were arrested in an FBI sting and indicted in federal court on weapons charges, accused of making false statements to buy guns at a Cabela’s store where Baldwin worked.
Three days later, a grand jury declined to charge Wilson for Brown’s death. As protests once again engulfed St. Louis, news outlets citing unnamed law enforcement sources reported that Davis and Baldwin had bought what they thought was a pipe bomb and had plans to buy two more from undercover agents, and that they intended to blow up the city’s celebrated arch and kill St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch and Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson. In a packed courtroom, the friends and families of the accused dismissed those accusations as “lies,” while the New Black Panther Party’s national leadership called them a “FRAME UP attempt.” Davis’s wife, who was pregnant and due in two weeks, fainted in court and went into early labor.
The most explosive allegations against Davis and Baldwin were not detailed in the original court filings. But in a revised federal indictment filed months after their arrest, the two were charged with additional crimes, including attempting to “damage and destroy, by means of explosives, a building, vehicle and other property.”
If the court documents were light on detail, the press coverage was not. In the heated atmosphere that followed the Ferguson protests, many news outlets hyped the story, writing headlines that mischaracterized Davis and Baldwin as affiliates of the “Black Panthers,” and letting anonymous law enforcement sources drive the narrative around their alleged scheme. The press picked on the story’s most salacious details: Davis and Baldwin had planned to buy more bombs, severaloutletsreported, but had been unable to do so because they were waiting for funds to be disbursed to “a girlfriend’s” EBT card — a detail, presumably leaked by law enforcement, that turned out to be false.
According to their nearly identical sentencing plea agreements, Davis and Baldwin, who met during the protests over Brown’s killing, discussed acquiring guns and bombs and wanting to organize Ferguson protesters to “be like an army.” Baldwin told an FBI informant that he wanted to “build bombs and blow things up.”
“We are at war, you understand, bro,” he told the informant. According to Baldwin’s plea, Davis “put it out there that he was a terrorist” — a reference that appears to have been scrapped from Davis’s own plea. The Gateway Arch, which according to earlier accounts had been the pair’s main target, was never actually mentioned in conversations recorded by law enforcement, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Pastor Spencer Booker addresses the crowd at a press conference, where a boycott and protest of Black Friday shopping was announced by the Justice for Michael Brown Leadership Coalition in St. Louis on Nov. 12, 2014. Olajuwon Ali Davis, far left, participated in the public announcement.
Photo: David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Polaris
For their part, law enforcement officials conceded that it was unlikely that Davis and Baldwin would have been capable of executing a bomb plot, and that it was unclear how they would have made it through airport-style security at the arch; nonetheless, they painted the duo as a dangerous threat.
Richard Callahan, then-U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Missouri, said in a statement after the guilty plea that the disruption of the plot days before the grand jury’s rejection of charges against Wilson “undoubtedly saved lives. Luckily for all of us, we’ll never know just how many.” But that seemed to contradict an earlier interview, in which he had said that a lot of Davis’s and Baldwin’s ideas were “totally unrealistic and impractical, and we didn’t include [in the indictment] all of the things they rambled on about, to not sensationalize the case or make it more than it is.” Callahan did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment. Kenneth Tihen, a lead prosecutor in the case, declined to comment.
Davis and Baldwin pleaded guilty to explosives and gun charges in June 2015, and in September 2015 they were sentenced to seven-year prison terms. (Davis’s father told The Intercept that before their plea, prosecutors had threatened his son with the possibility of 30 years in prison.)
At sentencing, Davis called his actions “reckless, irresponsible and just stupid.” Baldwin’s attorney said on behalf of his client that Baldwin also apologized for “his stupidity.” Davis’s attorney did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment; Baldwin’s declined to comment. Davis and Baldwin, who are currently in prison, could not be reached for comment.
But those close to them maintain that their ordeal was a classic case of entrapment.
“They wanted to set an example through my son to show that we are onto you all. The FBI, the federal government, is onto you activist people. We’re watching you; this can happen to you too.”
“He was tricked,” Henry Davis, Olajuwon Davis’s father, told The Intercept. “They wanted to set an example through my son to show that we are onto you all. The FBI, the federal government, is onto you activist people. We’re watching you; this can happen to you too.”
Henry Davis said that FBI “agents” befriended his son during the Ferguson protests, then offered him money, marijuana, and hotel stays. They later moved into his apartment complex and spent weeks hanging out with him, talking about “the resistance.”
His son, he said, felt obligated to do what they asked. “They pretended to be part of the whole movement, said that they wanted to be down,” Henry Davis said. He added that FBI agents gave his son and Baldwin the money they used to buy the guns, claiming that they couldn’t buy the weapons themselves because of felony records. But the same agents later insisted that Davis and Baldwin pay for the pipe bombs with their own money. That should have made his son suspicious, Henry Davis said.
“I’m not trying to justify his actions, because I’m ashamed, and I’ve expressed my disappointment to my son,” said Henry Davis. But, he added, “Olajuwon never had the intention of harming anyone. He’s actually harmless. … They got him.”
Baldwin’s father, Berlin Baldwin Jr., also told The Intercept that his son was caught in a trap. “If you believe in what you hear on TV, yeah, you would think he was a terrorist,” he said. The elder Baldwin readily admitted that his son made a mistake and committed a crime, but added, “He is not no terrorist. They just went after somebody and wrapped him up in it. And he’s none of what they’re saying. Just none of that stuff is true.”
Daniels, the Dallas gun activist who federal authorities tried and failed to prosecute as a “black identity extremist,” put it more bluntly. “A lot of people in this movement are not fully developed and mature individuals,” he told The Intercept, noting that he himself had staved off entrapment attempts by law enforcement. “If I go to any white college in America and talk to a whole bunch of 20-year-olds, and be like, ‘Hey man, I got some grenades, would you like to buy some?’ — somebody’s going to buy them. It’s like offering a gun to a baby.”
Brandon Orlando Baldwin appears to have been politicized by the protests over Brown’s killing. Three days after the shooting, Baldwin changed his Facebook profile picture to one of himself wearing a black beret — a symbol of the Black Panthers — and in the following months, his social media posts alternated between enraged comments about police brutality and pictures of himself with his young daughter.
Brandon Orlando Baldwin and his daughter.
Photo: Courtesy of the Baldwin family
In one post about the proliferation of videos showing police abuse, he wrote, “Stop filming and start blow’n they fuckin heads off… or beaten they Ass with they batons… When r we gonna really say enough is enough and stop turning the fuckin cheek for ppl who wouldn’t turn on the water if yo Ass was on fire.” In October 2014, a month before his arrest and while he was already under FBI surveillance, he posted: “I wonder how many of my Followers are FEDS.”
To his family, Baldwin’s arrest came as a shock, his father told The Intercept. His parents had not even known that he had started going to the protests in Ferguson until a family friend told his father that he had seen him on TV. “I immediately called him and said, What the hell are you doing?” Berlin Baldwin Jr. said.
“He might have been a protester, but he’s not an activist,” the senior Baldwin added, arguing that his son was young, naive, and new to the world of protests and activism. “To me and the family, we feel that he was brainwashed. … It was just a big mistake in his life, thinking that he was joining something that was important, being young.”
Davis had a longer history of political engagement. He had been a valedictorian in high school and won a full scholarship to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he was studying economics, his father told The Intercept. Davis was also a promising actor, and in 2013 he starred in an award-winning independent film that was released last year. “The story surrounding his arrest and crime aren’t a full picture,” Robert Herrera, the film’s director, said in an interview. “I think people would have a hard time reconciling who they see on screen versus what they read about him — and I think that is something to think about when you read about all the young minorities out in this country who are considered irredeemable criminals.”
“The bureau’s fever dreams of leftist subversion have undermined American efforts for social justice.”
In college, inspired by an African history class, Davis learned about the Moorish movement, a group that’s grown considerably in recent years, whose beliefs are a mixture of sovereign citizen ideology — a historically right-wing and white supremacist ideology whose adherents reject the legitimacy of government institutions — and devotion to the Moorish Science Temple of America. The senior Davis, who is a vocal Trump supporter and hopes the president will pardon his son, had dreamed that Olajuwon Davis would become the first black secretary of the Treasury. But to his father’s horror, Davis joined the Moors, dropped out of college, and moved back to St. Louis. “The Moors convinced him that he was too black and too powerful to work for the government,” his father said.
Because they reject government authority, including that of law enforcement, sovereign citizens are perceived by police agencies as a top threat. But the FBI’s “black identity extremism” report, while noting “sparse evidence” of a convergence of sovereign citizen extremism and Moorish beliefs, said that the connection is clearest in the production of fraudulent personal identification documents. “Not all self-identified Moors are sovereign citizens, and not all sovereign citizen Moors engage in violence against law enforcement or other illegal activity,” the FBI conceded in the report.
He carried a Moorish ID and said he had been tased and arrested in 2013 after attempting to make a “tax-free” purchase at a gas station using the ID. In social media posts, he described St. Louis as a “Slave Capital in a Slave State!” and the Gateway Arch as a “Symbol of Our destruction and demise.” According to his father, Davis met out-of-state members of the New Black Panther Party after Brown’s killing and was quickly recruited to lead the group’s local chapter. He befriended two FBI informants shortly thereafter.
A screenshot of the Moorish ID that Olajuwon Ali Davis shared in a YouTube video where he discussed sovereign citizenship.
Screenshot: The Intercept
The older Davis said his son did not realize that he was being framed, but the younger Davis indicated in social media posts that he knew he was under surveillance. “Family and Friends, every day I got Caucasians following me in SUV trucks,” he wrote on Facebook two days before his arrest. “Please be advised that if you show any signs of noncompliance with this Devil they will try to assassinate you.”
In prison, Davis has been taking classes, reading Paulo Coelho novels, recording himself reading books to his children, and volunteering to support fellow inmates who were placed on suicide watch, he wrote last year in a letter to the judge who sentenced him. “I recognize that my incarceration was due to my failure to adhere to the principles of unwavering faith and affirming peace in thought and in action,” he wrote. “My imprisonment has given me the chance to once again develop a perspective that is sound and humane.”
As protests over Brown’s killing intensified in Ferguson and spilled across the country over the next months and years, so did the FBI’s scrutiny of protesters. In November 2014, days before the Ferguson grand jury’s decision and Davis and Baldwin’s arrest, the bureau circulated an internal bulletin warning law enforcement of “Potential Criminal Reactions to Missouri Grand Jury Announcement.” Two years later, after protests against police brutality had engulfed Baltimore, Chicago, and several other cities, the FBI again issued an intelligence bulletin, warning that “Black Separatist Extremists’ Call for Retaliation in Response to Police-Involved Incidents Could Incite Acts of Violence against Law Enforcement.”
By 2017, the FBI had given this presumed threat a new name: Black Identity Extremism, or what the bureau claimed was a growing, violent, and racially motivated movement targeting law enforcement. Filled with innuendo and stereotypes, the 12-page report that first introduced the label was written so imprecisely that the very definition of a “black identity extremist” was left grammatically incomplete, making its meaning unclear:
The FBI defines black identity extremists as individuals who seek, wholly or in part, through unlawful acts of force or violence, in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society and some do so in furtherance of establishing a separate black homeland or autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations within the United States.
The report also explicitly connected its analysis to the Ferguson protests, focusing on incidents of what it called “premeditated attacks against law enforcement officers since 2014.”
“The FBI assesses it is very likely incidents of alleged police abuse against African Americans since [Ferguson] have continued to feed the resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity, within the BIE movement,” it noted, adding that agency had “high confidence” in its assessment. “The FBI further judges it is very likely BIEs proactively target police and openly identify and justify their actions with social-political agendas commensurate with their perceived injustices against African Americans, and in some cases, their identified affiliations with violent extremist groups.”
Hansford, the activist and professor, told The Intercept that law enforcement took legitimate grievances about a broken system as personal attacks against them, and fabricated a nonexistent threat to repress criticism. “The Black Lives Matter protesters and other black protesters oftentimes are protesting the police themselves, so it’s a situation of self-interest where [police] feel personally attacked,” he said. “The problem is there really hasn’t been a major [African-American] group that has in any way, shape, or form been a tangible threat to law enforcement, physically, since the Black Liberation Army,” Hansford added, citing a militant black nationalist group active in the 1970s. “It’s been over 40 years.”
Lawmakers also condemned the report. In addition to Wray’s meetings with the Congressional Black Caucus and testimonies about it at two separate House Judiciary Committee hearings, Bass memorably grilled then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the report’s claims at a different committee hearing. Sessions said he hadn’t read the report and couldn’t name an African-American organization that had committed violence against police. Moments after Bass asked him whether he considered the Ku Klux Klan to be “white identity extremists,” Sessions quipped that the names of any white supremacist groups were “not coming to me at this moment.”
Despite a barrage of criticism the FBI did not retract or amend the report. Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee in December 2017, Wray said that the FBI would not “withdraw intelligence assessments based on public outcry.” Appearing before that committee again, in June 2018, he offered no answers to some legislators’ questions about who exactly had written the report and based on what premises, but he said that their feedback “prompted us to go back and take a very hard look at how we are bucketing the different categories of domestic terrorism.” “I think it’s been a useful learning experience for us,” Wray said, “and I expect we will see some changes in how we do things going forward.” Still, to date, the FBI has issued no clarification or amendment to the report.
But the “black identity extremism” report wasn’t the only one the FBI produced that year warning about the threat posed by a nonexistent ideological group. As Jezebel reported in January, the FBI in 2017 issued a similar alert about what it called “pro-choice extremists.”
In a one-page memo obtained via public records request by the government transparency group Property of the People, the FBI lists the new category of made-up extremists along actually existing “pro-life extremists” under the common banner of “Abortion Extremism Ideology.” As was the case with “black identity extremism,” the FBI concedes in the report that its own evidence for claiming that such an ideology exists is scant. “Only one pro-choice extremist has been prosecuted,” the report notes. “And that person acted independently and without any direct affiliation to a pro-choice group.”
As Jezebel notes, that is a reference to Theodore Shulman, who served three years in prison for harassing and threatening to kill two leaders of the anti-abortion movement. The only killing of an anti-abortion activist came at the hands of a mentally ill man who had also killed someone else that day, and that showed no signs of being motivated by ideology.
The documents obtained by Property of the People also give a sense of how these reports might be put to use by law enforcement. In one email published by the group, a Washington state sheriff shares the FBI material with his staff with the following warning: “Attached is the latest and greatest about groups we should be aware of. Some of them operate in Eastern Washington.”
Property of the People called the equation of imaginary “pro-choice extremism” to the real “pro-life extremism,” whose adherents have murdered at least a dozen doctors and abortion providers, “an especially egregious case of ‘bothsidesism.’”
“The term ‘terrorist’ is so nebulous, it’s so abstract. Anything they don’t like, they’ll call terrorist.”
“The FBI has a long, sad history of targeting progressive movements as threats to national security,” Ryan Shapiro, the group’s executive director, told The Intercept. “From the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements to the animal rights, anti-fascist, pro-choice, and Black Lives Matter movements today, the bureau’s fever dreams of leftist subversion have undermined American efforts for social justice.”
The FBI has also done little to address criticism that while it has long warned of the “persistent” threat posed by white supremacist groups — and even investigated white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement, as The Intercept has reported — it has grossly undercounted the violent incidents stemming from white supremacist ideology. While a May 2017 FBI report argued that “lone actors and small cells” within the white supremacist extremist movement “will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence,” that report minimized the level of violence coming from these individuals, listing only “one lethal and five potentially lethal attacks” carried out by white supremacist extremists in 2016 and omitting, for instance, the case of Brent Ward Luyster, a neo-Nazi who murdered three people in 2016 while under FBI investigation.
Between 2008 and 2017, “right-wing extremists” were responsible for 274 murders — more than 70 percent of all murders carried out by domestic extremists, according to a review by the ADL. And of 34 extremist-related murders in 2017, 59 percent were related to right-wing extremism, including 53 percent involving individuals who explicitly espoused white supremacist views. But many of those cases were rarely discussed by officials in terms of domestic terrorism, nor were the accused charged under anti-terrorism laws, even though they appeared to be motivated by a clear ideology.
Instead, as The Intercept’s analysis revealed, the Justice Department applied anti-terrorism laws against only 34 of 268 right-wing extremists it prosecuted for crimes that appear to meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism — while also targeting 17 environmental and animal rights activists with anti-terrorism laws.
“They view terrorism through a distorted lens that overemphasizes nonviolent acts by groups opposed to government policy over acts of violence against marginalized groups here in the United States,” said German, the former FBI agent, referring to the agency. “The language is intentionally malleable because they want to include certain acts and exclude other similar acts, depending on who is committing them or who the victim of the crime is.”
“The reason they’re able to do this is because the term ‘terrorist’ is so nebulous, it’s so abstract. Anything they don’t like, they’ll call terrorist,” echoed Hansford, the activist and law professor. “They will always resist having a more precise definition of terrorism because they want to use it as a tool to basically go after whoever they want to go after.”
Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP
The FBI’s “BIE List”
In addition to the case of Davis and Baldwin — which the FBI report inexplicably describes as involving only one unnamed suspect — the “black identity extremism” report mentions the deadly shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge in the summer of 2016. Those shootings followed the police killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, which were caught on video and reignited the national outrage sparked by Brown’s killing two years earlier. The report also lists nonfatal attacks on police in New York, Indiana, and Arizona.
But despite the FBI’s efforts to group the incidents together, there is no evidence that the perpetrators knew each other, belonged to any common groups, or subscribed to the same set of beliefs. Instead, the cases present a mix of resentment toward police, anger at the treatment of minorities, and mental health issues. At least two of the men referenced had expressed sovereign citizen beliefs: one was a Muslim convert who had shown fascination with jihadi violence, and two were military veterans who had sought treatment for symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. In many cases, the ideologies that law enforcement has attributed to them appear to have been based on FBI agents scrolling through comments the men had made on social media.
Three of the six referenced in the report were killed before their motives could be tested in court. Micah Johnson, who on July 7, 2016, shot and killed five law enforcement officers and wounded several others at a Dallas protest against police violence, told police negotiators before being killed in a standoff that “he was upset about recent police shootings and white people, and expressed a desire to kill white people, especially white officers,” according to the FBI report. The report notes that Johnson had “searched and liked social media pages of BIE and black separatist groups” and “appeared to have been influenced by BIE ideology.” It also cites news reports saying that he had been “ousted from a local BIE group for being too radical.” It’s unclear what groups the FBI was referring to, since “black identity extremist” organizations do not exist.
Gavin Eugene Long, who shot six Baton Rouge police officers on July 17, 2016, killing three, had used “black separatist rhetoric” on social media and in a manifesto he left behind, in which he described his actions “as a necessary evil … in order to create substantial change,” the FBI report notes, adding that Long had also declared himself a “Moor,” changed his “slave” name to a Moorish name, and was carrying a Moorish identification card at the time of his death. In videos and tweets posted shortly before the shooting, Long had praised Johnson, the Dallas shooter. He added, if “anything happens to me … don’t affiliate me with anybody.”
The cases present a mix of resentment toward police, anger at the treatment of minorities, and mental health issues.
Both Johnson and Long were military veterans. Johnson had sought treatment for anxiety, depression, and hallucinations after returning from Afghanistan in 2014, according to the Veterans Health Administration, and he had reportedly told doctors that he heard voices and mortars exploding, and that he had panic attacks and nightmares. Long, who served with the Marines in Iraq between 2008 and 2009, had told doctors that he experienced symptoms of PTSD, though his ultimate diagnosis was “adjustment disorder with depressed mood.”
The FBI report also lists the case of Zale Thompson, who attacked four New York police officers with a hatchet in October 2014, injuring two. According to the report, Thompson had tattoos that “indicated he was affiliated with a black separatist extremist group” and “pocket litter indicating he may have been associated with another black separatist group.” The FBI report cites “law enforcement reporting” as its source, but doesn’t mention that Thompson also appeared to have become fascinated by Islamic State propaganda videos and jihadi rhetoric.
Finally, the report listed the cases, though not the names, of Damoine Wilcoxson and Marc Laquon Payne. Wilcoxson was sentenced to 37 years in Indiana state prison after shooting at two Indianapolis police stations in 2016, leaving behind delirious handwritten notes saying, “White must die.” Payne was accused of plowing his car into three officers in Arizona that same year. Authorities indicated that Payne, who has pleaded not guilty and is facing trial later this year, was impaired at the time and that his motives were unknown, but the FBI report notes that Payne’s social media accounts “indicated that he was tied to a BIE group and a Moorish group and that he was angry over police shootings since at least the killing of Brown in 2014.”
But while the FBI stretched its definition of “black identity extremism” to include a disparate series of disconnected cases, white criminal suspects’ connections to extremist groups are often discounted, German said. “There’s evidence that the shooter in Las Vegas had expressed some anti-government views that are in line with some far-right groups, but you don’t see this rush to say he was a far-right extremist and to attribute those deaths to far-right extremism in the United States,” he said, referring to the massacre of 59 people at a country music concert in 2017. “That’s where the politics of this kind of approach are very damaging and divisive in American society, because they do tend to reflect political views rather than the threat of violence.”
Photo: Allison V. Smith
The case of Rakem Balogun is often characterized as the first attempted federal prosecution of a “black identity extremist” since the FBI report about the supposed ideology. Balogun is a Dallas-based former Marine and a member of Guerrilla Mainframe, a pan-African group with a broad agenda ranging between universal health care and the abolition of the U.S. Constitution. He was also a member of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, which promotes the Second Amendment rights of African-Americans.
Balogun, whose legal name is Christopher Daniels, was arrested in December 2017, when officers in riot gear pulled him and his 15-year-old son out of their house and forced them to stand outside in the cold, handcuffed and in their underwear. Balogun spent the next five months in jail on a single illegal firearms possession charge, while prosecutors tried and failed to paint him as a domestic terrorist. At his detention hearing, where Balogun was denied bail, an FBI agent testified that he had been under surveillance for two years, since video of him at an open-carry rally against police brutality circulated online, including on the right-wing conspiracy site InfoWars.
The video shows protesters, including Balogun, chanting, “The only good pig is a pig that’s dead” and “Oink oink, bang bang.” Balogun’s Facebook page “openly and publicly advocates violence toward law enforcement,” the FBI agent said. On the first anniversary of the July 2016 Dallas police shooting, Balogun posted several comments that appeared to celebrate shooter Micah Johnson. “Today one year ago one Black Man brought Dallas Pig Department to their knees,” he wrote.
Today, Balogun says he always suspected that he was being watched. “Anybody that knows a little bit about the history of black activism would know that once you become politically involved as a black person, especially as somebody who counters popular politics, that you will be watched,” he told The Intercept months after a judge ordered his release. “I don’t mind having an audience. I’m not doing anything illegal and I don’t advocate for anything illegal.”
“The thing about it is, a lot of mature black nationalists, militants, are not into the concept of going to war with the police or the state or anything of that nature,” he added, noting that he espouses what he called “scientific revolutionary socialism,” and that he believes in an individual’s right to self-defense.
Ultimately, the case against Balogun hinged on an accusation that he was prohibited from owning a gun due to a 10-year-old misdemeanor conviction for domestic assault in another state. Prosecutors tried to convince him to take a plea deal, he said. “Their plan was for me to be weak and sign for six months, and to feel guilty for being a black activist who promotes a culture of self-defense and self-preservation in a white nation. … That’s really the crime,” he told The Intercept. He refused to take a deal.
Balogun, who has long been an advocate for gun rights, said he’s used to the double standard applied to black gun owners. Perhaps the most infamous example of that is Philando Castile, who was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop, which his girlfriend streamed on Facebook Live. Castile was a legal gun owner and told the officer he had a gun, but he was shot anyway while reaching for his license as ordered. Balogun told The Intercept that while police officers are generally friendly with open-carry demonstrators in Texas, black open-carry demonstrators routinely receive more hostile treatment.
A federal judge ultimately dismissed the gun charge against him, but Balogun lost his job and home, and missed his newborn daughter’s first months while he was in jail. He says he is now considering legal action to obtain whatever surveillance material the government may have gathered on him. Wray said at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in June 2017 that he was not familiar with Balogun’s case.
Babu Omowale, a founder and director of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, told The Intercept that he is sure Balogun was not the only member under surveillance. The group, which is named after a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, is mostly made up of former members or the New Black Panther Party who have focused their activism on gun rights and self-defense in the black community, mostly staging open-carry rallies, neighborhood patrols, and in one case, counterdemonstrating as an anti-Muslim group rallied outside a Dallas mosque.
“We see them sitting outside of our meetings, watching us, but it’s not going to stop us from organizing our people,” said Omowale, referring to the FBI. “We’ve known about it since the 1960s, when J. Edgar Hoover was over the counterintelligence program where he sought out black leadership.”
The FBI’s leaked memo, as well as evidence that had already emerged that the FBI was targeting black activists for surveillance, drew widespread comparisons to the notorious COINTELPRO, a program aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, and sabotaging the civil rights, anti-war, and black liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. “Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the original ‘Black Identity Extremists,’” a HuffPost column noted. Several people called the FBI report “COINTELPRO 2.0.” The FBI itself referred to the civil rights era in its 2017 report, retroactively applying its new “black identity extremist” label to the now-defunct Black Liberation Army. “BIEs have historically justified and perpetrated violence against law enforcement, which they perceived as representative of the institutionalized oppression of African Americans,” the report argued. “BIE violence peaked in the 1960s and 1970s in response to changing socioeconomic attitudes and treatment of blacks during the Civil Rights Movement.”
Under the COINTELPRO umbrella, the FBI went from tracking King’s every move and attempting to smear him, to surveilling Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, including by obtaining a floor map of his apartment, before Chicago police shot about 90 rounds into the apartment in 1969, killing Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark. At the same time, they routinely failed to intervene as white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan engaged in a sustained campaign of violence against civil rights activists and African-Americans.
The FBI report noted that between 1970 and 1984, the Black Liberation Army was involved in at least 38 criminal incidents, including 26 armed assaults, three assassinations, four bombings, and four hijackings and hostage-takings — half of them targeting law enforcement officers. But it made no reference to law enforcement violence against black activists, including the 1985 bombing of the Philadelphia headquarters of black liberation group MOVE, that killed 11 people.
Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee in November 2017, Wray called COINTELPRO “one of the darker moments in FBI’s history.” “It’s something we are not proud of, but it’s also something we have learned from,” he said. But when Rep. Cedric Richmond asked him why the FBI’s building continued to be named after J. Edgar Hoover — COINTELPRO’s infamous architect — Wray replied, “Like most people, he’s complicated.”
The “black identity extremism” report was hardly the first FBI effort to revive the tactics of COINTELPRO. In 2012, German, then at the American Civil Liberties Union, obtained public records revealing that the FBI had come up with yet another label to target what they claimed was a growing threat: “black separatist” domestic terrorism. Then, as now, the more recent violence driven by black nationalist ideology dated back decades, but the FBI included new warnings in its terrorism training materials that inexplicably connected the growing size of the black population in states like Georgia with a growing domestic terror threat. (As the ACLU noted at the time, the FBI had around the same time also invented what it called “American Islamic Extremists.”)
“The government has always kept an eye on black people because they want to keep us in a certain social order.”
“You would hope that a law enforcement agency learns from its past mistakes,” said German. “I think that’s where the biggest failure is, that there are enough parallels to how the FBI reacted to protests in the 1960s and 1970s that should have dissuaded them from adopting similar approaches again.”
But rather than learning from the past, it seems that the FBI is trying to maintain its old ways under a different name. While the ideologies that the terms “black separatism” and “black identity extremism” purport to represent would appear rather different, the FBI has recently folded both into the latter category, documents reveal. In an internal email exchange obtained by Property of the People and shared with The Intercept, Michael F. Paul, an official with the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, wrote to colleagues that the bureau had updated its definition of “black separatist extremism” in order “to broaden it beyond simply those seeking ‘separatism,’” he wrote. “The threat or movement has simply evolved,” Paul added, “and many are seeking more than/other than separation.”
Shapiro, of Property of the People, said the reclassification aimed to cast an even wider net on black activists at a time when police accountability, rather than separatism, was their priority. “Black Lives Matter isn’t a separatist movement, and the FBI wanted to expand its surveillance of black activists and communities,” he told The Intercept.
“With ‘black identity extremism,’ the FBI has expanded its ‘black separatist extremist’ category to also designate groups like Black Lives Matter a security threat,” he added. “The ‘BIE’ classification is the FBI’s bureaucratic umbrella for targeting as terrorists black people who expose the daily terror against their families and neighborhoods perpetrated by unaccountable killers in blue.”
To many black activists, that’s a familiar story.
“The government has always kept an eye on black people because they want to keep us in a certain social order,” said Omowale, of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. “The term ‘black identity extremist’ may be a new term, but the way that the government operates is nothing new. They’ve been doing it since we’ve been in this country, since black people, even slaves, tried to organize for some type of freedom.”
The U.S. Department of Justice most often brings terrorism-related charges, but 34 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that make committing acts of terrorism — and, in some cases, providing support to terrorists — state-level felonies.
Most of these laws were created in response to the 9/11 attacks. In all, 27 states passed anti-terrorism legislation in 2002.
In some states, terrorism is vaguely defined. Arkansas outlaws “terroristic acts” but does not say that such acts must be ideologically motivated, a requirement under the federal terrorism law. Maine prohibits what lawmakers term a “catastrophe” of “terroristic intent,” which can include releasing a chemical or biological toxin or causing an explosion, fire, flood, building collapse, or even an avalanche.
Since 9/11, state lawmakers have continued to be reactionary in drafting and amending anti-terrorism laws. Georgia created a law in 2017 to define “domestic terrorism” following Dylann Roof’s mass shooting at a black church in South Carolina. After Omar Mateen’s massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, lawmakers amended the state’s 2002 anti-terrorism law to strengthen criminal penalties for acts of terrorism, adding a life sentence for terrorists whose violence results in death, among other changes. Kentucky and Michigan provide even harsher penalties: life in prison for anyone convicted of committing an act of terrorism.
Here’s a look at anti-terrorism laws in the 50 states and the District of Columbia:
Alabama’s law defines terrorism in terms similar to the USA Patriot Act and provides a sentencing enhancement for terrorism-related crimes.
Connecticut’s law prohibits building chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. It also defines various crimes of “terrorist purposes,” such as computer hacking, contaminating water or food supplies, and damaging public transit systems.
Michigan’s voluminous law defines terrorist organizations as those designated by the U.S. State Department; provides a life sentence for terrorist acts that result in death; and prohibits providing material support to terrorists.