September 24 began like any other Friday for Joe Iosbaker and
Stephanie Weiner. Then, at 7 a.m., FBI agents knocked on the door of the
Chicago couple's house in the city's North Side.
Armed with a search warrant, more than 20 agents examined the
couple's home, photographing every room and combing through notebooks,
family videos and books, even their children's drawings. Some items were
connected to their decades of anti-war and international solidarity
activism, but others were not. "Folders were opened, letters were pulled
out of envelopes," says Weiner, an adult education professor at Wilbur
Wright College. "They had rubber gloves and they went through every
aspect of our home." (See video interview with Weiner and Iosbaker
Ten hours after their arrival, as television news crews filmed and
activist supporters stood on the sidewalk, the agents drove away with
nearly 30 boxes of material, including t-shirts and a photograph of
Malcolm X. By that time, Iosbaker and Weiner had been served subpoenas
to appear before a grand jury investigating "material support" for
"foreign terrorist organizations." And they knew theirs wasn't the only
home invaded that day. More than 70 FBI agents had raided seven
residences in Chicago and Minneapolis and questioned activists in
Michigan, California and North Carolina, serving subpoenas to 11 people.
A few days later, the Justice Department subpoenaed members of the
Minnesota Anti-War Committee (AWC), whose office was also raided on
September 24, raising the number to 14. (Editor's note: five additional Chicago-area activists were subpoenaed in early December; see update below.)
The grand jury and FBI are looking for evidence that connects the 14
activists and their "potential co-conspirators" to two organizations:
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Popular Front
for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which are both on the State
Department's "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" list. None of the 14 has
been charged with a crime, and all deny providing "material support,"
including money, to any foreign organization.
Citing the Fifth Amendment, all 14 are refusing to testify before the
grand jury, which they say is a secretive arm of a government intent on
silencing critics. (The U.S. Attorney's office conducting the
investigation declined to comment. The search warrant affidavits
justifying the FBI raids remain under seal.)
Most of those subpoenaed, including Weiner and Iosbaker, have been
active in the labor movement and/or are members of the Freedom Road
Socialist Organization (FRSO), a self-described "socialist and
Marxist-Leninist organization" with about 100 members. But affiliations
vary: 71-year-old great-grandmother Sarah Martin belongs to the
Minneapolis-based group Women Against Military Madness; Hatem Abudayyeh
is executive director of the Arab American Action Network, a Chicago
social services agency; others are connected to Students for a
Democratic Society (SDS), the Palestine Solidarity Group-Chicago and the
Colombia Action Network, which has protested U.S. military aid to
Colombia and the assassinations of unionists there. The only connection
they all have in common is that they all participated in an
AWC-organized rally outside the 2008 Republican National Convention in
Except for Mick Kelly and Tom Burke, FRSO members who have
interviewed PFLP leaders, and Jess Sundin, who met with FARC members 10
years ago during a visit to Colombia, none of those subpoenaed say they
have communicated directly with members of FARC or PFLP. But many of the
activists are sympathetic to those organizations' goals and some have
traveled to Colombia and Palestine as part of solidarity delegations.
"Anyone who does international solidarity or anti-war work, anyone
who goes against the grain of American politics, is affected by this,"
says Kelly, a University of Minnesota cook and Teamster. "It's extremely
important to push back against this repression. It affects the movement
as a whole."
The Supreme Court's ‘deeply chilling effect'
The phrase "material support for terrorism" brings to mind money and
weapons, or other goods and services that directly support a terrorist
organization's violent objectives or actions. But in June, the Supreme
Court in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project upheld a much broader
definition of material support-one that criminalizes speech advocating
peace and human rights if it is "coordinated" with an official terrorist
organization. It is this ruling that sets the stage for September's
"For the first time, [the court] actually says it's criminal to speak
out, to associate," says Michael Deutsch, an attorney with the
Chicago-based People's Law Office and one of the National Lawyers Guild
members working with the activists. "The ruling criminalizes First
Amendment activity. It's quite ominous."
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Material support for terrorism was first criminalized by the
Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The 2001 PATRIOT
Act broadened the definition of "material support" to include "expert
advice or assistance" and provided a maximum sentence of 15 years. (The
American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh was charged with, but not
convicted of, providing material support to al Qaeda.) In 1998 the
Humanitarian Law Project went to federal court to challenge the material
support statute. The nonprofit group wanted to assist the Kurdistan
Workers' Party (PKK) with conflict resolution and human rights
monitoring. It was later joined in the lawsuit by Tamil-American
organizations wishing to provide medical assistance to victims of the
2004 South Asian tsunami, which would have required working with the
now-defeated Tamil Tigers, which, like the PKK, is a State
Department-listed terrorist group.
The Humanitarian Law Project argued that the material support law
violated the First Amendment's right to free speech. But a majority of
the Supreme Court accepted the government's argument-made by
then-Solicitor General and current Justice Elena Kagan-that all
nonviolent aid is properly illegal because it "frees up other resources
within the organization that may be put to violent ends" and
"legitimates" foreign terrorist groups. Writing for the majority, Chief
Justice John Roberts clarified that the law only criminalizes speech
"under the direction of, or in coordination with foreign groups,"
leaving "independent advocacy" on the right side of the law.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor
strongly disagreed, writing: "Not even the ‘serious and deadly problem'
of international terrorism can require automatic forfeiture of First
University of Chicago law professor Aziz Huq takes issue with the
court's distinction between "independent" and "coordinated" speech-a
critical distinction if any of the 14 activists are charged with
"material support" of FARC and PFLP. "There is some kind of speech that
is not possible to do independently," Huq says. "There are speech
interests that are squelched here."
Deutsch agrees: "It creates a chilling effect on people who are
challenging U.S. foreign policy. If you speak out for the rights of
Palestinians or question the government of Colombia, or are supportive
of the Kurds' right to their homeland, you've invariably going to come
into contact with these groups. You're going to be advocating some of
the things that they're promoting."
That's a point familiar to former anti-apartheid activists, who
organized to end white supremacy in South Africa. The anti-apartheid
movement took direction from the African National Congress (ANC), which
was called a terrorist organization by President Reagan in 1986. If the
material support statute had been in place in the 1970s, the thousands
of people who led anti-apartheid protests across the United States could
have been considered criminals. (The ANC and its leader, Nelson
Mandela, were not removed from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist
organizations until 2008, 15 years after Mandela won the Nobel Peace
"This is almost the 1950s coming back. It's overreaching," says Jim
Fennerty, another attorney assisting the subpoenaed activists.
Similarly, he adds, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter could be charged
with "material support" for monitoring Lebanon's 2009 elections, which
involved coordinated activity with Hezbollah, an official terrorist
organization that was on the ballot.
In February, when the Supreme Court heard Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, David Cole, the Center for Constitutional Rights attorney sparred with Justice Antonin Scalia:
Cole: The New York Times, the Washington Post,
and the L.A.Times...published op-eds by Hamas spokespersons...thereby
providing a benefit to Hamas. [Under this statute,] they're all
Scalia: [Interrupting]: Well, we-we can cross that bridge when we come to it.
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