Congressional Testimony on the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) by Will Potter

May 23, 2006

House Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 4239, the “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act”

Statement of Will Potter
Journalist specializing in “eco-terrorism” and civil liberties, author of

Full transcript is also available.

Good morning Chairman Coble, Ranking Member Scott, and members of the committee. I am honored to be invited to discuss civil liberties concerns raised by H.R. 4239, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.

I should be clear from the outset, though. I am not a lawyer. I’m not a First Amendment scholar. And I’m not a spokesperson for the animal rights movement, or underground groups.

I’m here because of my freelance reporting. I have written for publications including The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, and Legal Affairs. And since 2000, I have closely followed the animal rights and environmental movements, and the corporate-led backlash against them. I’ve documented an increasingly disturbing trend of “terrorist” rhetoric, sweeping legislation, grand jury witch hunts, blacklists, and FBI harassment reminiscent of tactics used against Americans during the Red Scare.

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is a continuation of that trend.

The bill is ostensibly a response to illegal actions committed by underground activists in the name of animal rights. Business groups have lobbied for this legislation for years. And Department of Justice officials have said they need help prosecuting these crimes.

At the same time, they have been patting themselves on the back for arresting so-called “eco-terrorists.” Just this weekend, four individuals were indicted for the 1998 fire at a Vail ski resort. Earlier this year, the government rounded up over a dozen environmental activists in the Northwest for property crimes. And on top of that, six animal activists were convicted in March of “animal enterprise terrorism” and other charges.

If committee members want law enforcement to focus resources on the animal rights and environmental movements, that’s already being done. The government has been able to make arrests and convictions using existing laws.

This legislation will not help solve crimes. It will, however, risk painting legal activity and non-violent civil disobedience with the same broad brush as illegal activists. It takes the administration’s “you’re either with us or against us” mentality of the War on Terrorism and applies it to activists.

This legislation criminalizes any activity against an animal enterprise, or any company connected to an animal enterprise, that causes “economic damage.” That includes the replacement costs of lost or damaged property or records, the costs of repeating an interrupted or invalidated experiment, and “the loss of profits.”

That clause, “loss of profits,” would sweep in not only property crimes, but legal activity like protests, boycotts, investigations, media campaigning, and whistleblowing. It would also include campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience, like blocking entrances to a laboratory where controversial animal testing is taking place.

Those aren’t acts of terrorism. They are effective activism. Businesses exist to make money, and if activists want to change a business practice, they must make that practice unprofitable. That principle guided the grape boycotts of the United Farm Workers, the lunch-counter civil disobedience of civil rights activists, and the divestment campaigns of anti-apartheid groups.

Those tactics all hurt profits. And those tactics, if directed at an animal enterprise, would all be considered “terrorism” under this bill. In fact, those three examples would probably receive stiffer penalties, because they caused “significant” or “major” economic damage or disruption. In other words, the more successful that activists are, the greater terrorist threat they become under this bill.

It is my understanding at the time of drafting this testimony that proposed changes might exclude “expressive conduct (including peaceful picketing or other peaceful demonstration) protected from legal prohibition by the First Amendment.” It is a positive, yet incremental, first step to include peaceful picketing. However, the bill does not specifically exclude other activity like boycotts, whistleblowing, undercover investigation, and non-violent civil disobedience.

Furthermore, the inclusion of “trespassing” in damaging and disruptive activity puts undercover investigators and whistleblowers further at risk. Undercover video and photography undoubtedly impact profits. They have also led to prosecutions, animal welfare reforms, and a more informed democratic process on these issues.

Exceptions are made in the bill for disruption or damage “that results from lawful public, governmental, or business reaction to the disclosure of information about an animal enterprise.” But this is no safeguard. For instance, undercover investigators and whistleblowers may cause financial loss for a company beyond the losses related to third party reactions. Companies may argue that salaries for undercover investigators, increased internal security, and extensive employee background checks are added costs of doing business because of activists. In short, this exemption seems to pose more questions than it answers.

You probably have noted that I have not focused on the clauses of this legislation dealing with significant bodily injury or death caused by activists. Those provisions are each problematic, but they are also, in some ways, non-issues. It’s unlikely that even illegal, underground activists like the Animal Liberation Front would be impacted. Their actions, such as releasing mink from fur farms, spray-painting buildings, and arson, have not claimed a single human life.

This legislation will impact all animal activists, even if they never enter the courtroom. It will add to the chilling effect that already exists because of “eco-terrorism” rhetoric by corporations, lawmakers and law enforcement. Through my interviews with grassroots animal rights activists, national organizations, and their attorneys, I have heard widespread fears that the word “terrorist” could one day be turned against them, even though they use legal tactics.

They point to full-page anonymous ads in both The New York Times and The Washington Post this month, labeling animal rights activists “terrorists.” The ads promote a website,, that says “anti-business activists” like the Teamsters, Communication Workers of America and Greenpeace could be the next “eco-terrorists.” Media campaigns by the Center for Consumer Freedom and other industry groups have used similar rhetoric to smear legal activist groups.

Activists also feel that the government is disproportionately focusing resources and attention on the animal rights and environmental movements. They cite reporting by Congressional Quarterly that showed the Department of Homeland Security does not list right-wing terrorists on a list of national security threats.

Those groups have been responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, violence against doctors, and admittedly creating weapons of mass destruction, but animal rights activists still top the domestic terrorist list.

This legislation will add to this fear and distrust, and will force Americans to decide if speaking up for animals is worth the risk of being labeled a “terrorist,” either in the media or the courtroom. That’s not a choice anyone should have to make.

Animal rights activists have been among the first victims of this terrorist scaremongering, but if it continues they will not be the last. Changes in the Supreme Court seem to have revitalized the anti-abortion movement, which, unlike the animal rights movement, has a documented history of bloodshed. But there’s also a potential for backlash if upcoming elections alter the balance of power in Washington. Some anti-abortion organizations, like the Thomas More Society, have already raised concerns that this legislation could become a model for labeling other activists as terrorists.

All Americans should be concerned about this trend, regardless of how they feel about animal rights. The word terrorism should not be batted around against the enemy of the hour, to push a partisan political agenda. Public fears of terrorism since the tragedy of September 11th should not be exploited for political points. I urge you to reject this legislation in its entirety, and ensure that limited anti-terrorism resources are not spent targeting non-violent activism.

Thank you again for this opportunity, and I look forward to your questions.