New documents reveal that the federal Counter-Terrorism Unit is creating reports and maintaining files about the writing, interviews, and lectures of journalists who are critical of the government’s repression of political activists.
The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request in coordination with the Center for Constitutional Rights, raise a wide range of civil rights concerns, but for this article I am only at liberty to comment on the files that pertain to my work. These documents show that the unit, which operates through the federal Bureau of Prisons, regularly maintains files on explicitly First Amendment activity.
Counter-Terrorism Unit Monitors Critical Journalism
Multiple articles that I have written critical of counter-terrorism policies are cited, summarized, and quoted. For instance, one document includes a lengthy excerpt from my March 7, 2011 article, “Supreme Court Will Not Hear SHAC 7 Case.”
The government is especially interested in a quote I included from Lauren Gazzola, one of the SHAC 7 prisoners, saying:
“I spent three-and-a-half-years of my life trying to put HLS out of business and three-and-a-half-years in prison for it. Every single day was worth it and I’d do it again. Today, I’d simply like to repeat this: I’d do it again. It was all worth it.”
In another file, the government describes an article I wrote called “Making an Animal Rights Terrorists,” about the case of Fran Trutt in 1988. Trutt was the target of an entrapment plot coordinated by a private firm hired by the animal testing corporation that she was protesting. This little-known case was a historic point in the campaign by corporations to demonize animal rights activists as domestic terrorists.
I’m not the only reporter included in these files. In another document, Daniel McGowan wrote to a journalist, whose name is redacted, and said thank you for writing about his case and about his imprisonment as a “terrorist” in a Communications Management Unit. Only the thank you note is legible; the rest of the document is redacted.
Intelligence Files on Public Lectures
I have written previously about Counter-Terrorism Unit files on my public lectures at public conferences. Unfortunately, these new documents reveal more of the same.
One of the lectures was hosted by the Center for Constitutional Rights: “Red to Green: Political Panic from McCarthyism to ‘Eco-Terrorism.” It featured Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Executive Director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, speaking about the Red Scare and anti-communist hysteria. I spoke about how “terrorists” have become the new enemy of the hour and a rhetorical tool to excuse all manner of harassment, intimidation, and surveillance.
Counter-Terrorism Files on My Book
The government is also quite interested in my book.
“Potter recently authored a book titled, ‘Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege,” one report says. “The book centers around the underground world of radical environmental and animal rights activism, and Potter’s views regarding [using] anti-terrorism resources to target environmentalists.”
It goes on to quote a letter written by Daniel McGowan to me in which he says: “O.K., seriously- the book is stellar – really really well done and the way you tell the story is excellent.”
In a different document, the Counter-Terrorism Unit reports:
“[Name redacted] described Will Potter’s new book, Green Is the New Red, as a compelling and well written focus on many cases across the country involving animal and environmental” movements.
Jokes aside, I don’t mean to make light of this situation. When the Counter-Terrorism Unit creates files like this, it sends a chilling message to all journalists.
Surveilling Journalists Is an Attack on Freedom of the Press
Remember: These documents are circulated to FBI, prison officials, and other law enforcement advising them on the activities of “terrorists,” with the ostensible purpose of using this intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks.
Seeing one’s work repeatedly listed in this context is unsettling, to put it mildly. This is lawful, public, First Amendment activity. So why is it being monitored and circulated in this way? What does this say about our government and our culture’s understanding of “terrorism threats” that these dossiers include articles, speeches, and books?
On a personal level, I am always hesitant to write about things like this. I was going to publish this article yesterday, and then learned that the FBI was raiding activist homes and serving grand jury subpoenas, and then learned that one of the Cleveland 5 has agreed to cooperate against his co-defendants. Seeing my work in terrorism files is disturbing, but it has few immediate personal ramifications. It’s nowhere on par with what folks around the country are experiencing.
It is, however, part of the same systemic crackdown on dissent. We need to understand these files in the bigger context that I have documented on this website and (as the Counter-Terrorism Unit notes) in my book. It’s yet another step in the steady, incremental expansion of the “War on Terrorism” not only to include non-violent saboteurs, not only to include the civil disobedience of Tim DeChristopher and the undercover investigations of the Humane Society, but to go even further, and wrap up those attempting to document that any of this is happening.