Activists cry foul over FBI probe

  • Article by: PETER WALLSTEN , Washington Post
  • Updated: June 13, 2011 - 10:17 PM

People in Minnesota are among those fighting back as the FBI pursues a nationwide terrorism investigation.

CHICAGO - FBI agents took box after box of address books, family calendars, artwork and personal letters in their 10-hour raid in September of the century-old Chicago house shared by Stephanie Weiner and her husband.

The agents seemed keenly interested in Weiner's home-based business, the Revolutionary Lemonade Stand, which sells clothes with socialist slogans, phrases like: "Help Wanted: Revolutionaries."

The search was part of a mysterious, ongoing nationwide terrorism investigation with an unusual target: prominent peace activists and politically active labor organizers, a number of them in Minnesota.

The probe -- involving subpoenas to 23 people and raids of seven homes last fall -- has triggered a high-powered protest against the Justice Department and, in the process, could create some political discomfort for President Obama with his union supporters as he gears up for his re-election campaign. Investigators, according to search warrants, documents and interviews, are examining possible "material support" for Colombian and Palestinian groups designated by the U.S. government as terrorists.

The apparent targets deny any ties to terrorism. They say the government, using its post-9/11 focus on terrorism as a pretext, is targeting them for their political views.

'Public nonviolent activists'

They are "public nonviolent activists with long, distinguished careers in public service, including teachers, union organizers and antiwar and community leaders," said Michael Deutsch, a Chicago lawyer and part of a legal team defending those who believe they are being targeted.

Several activists and their lawyers said they believe indictments could come anytime, so they have turned their organizing skills toward a counteroffensive, decrying the inquiry as a threat to their First Amendment rights. All 23 of the activists invoked their right not to testify before a grand jury, defying U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, whose office is spearheading the investigation. A spokesman for Fitzgerald declined to comment.

The activists have formed the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, organized phone banks to flood Attorney General Eric Holder's office and the White House with protest calls, solicited letters from unions and faith-based groups and sent delegations to Capitol Hill.

"I am so disgusted when I see that so many union people have been targeted in this," said Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800, which represents clerical workers at the University of Minnesota, including four members who are possible targets.

Holder experienced the activists' anger firsthand last month, when Tracy Molm, 30, an AFSCME organizer whose apartment was raided, stood to interrupt a speech he was giving at the University of Minnesota. Holder, unaware that she was a possible investigation target, agreed to meet with her after the speech. In a small room off the auditorium, with the attorney general flanked by aides and security, Molm demanded to know why the administration was pursuing the inquiry, she recalled later in an interview.

Confronting Holder

"He said they had a predicate for the investigation," Molm said. "I said, 'The predicates after 9/11 are nothing.' "

"We're going to have to agree to disagree," Holder replied, according to Molm. At that point, Molm revealed that her apartment had been raided as part of the investigation. Holder and Justice Department officials abruptly ended the discussion.

The probe appears to date from 2008, as a number of activists began planning for massive antiwar demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. After the convention, the FBI's interest continued, apparently focused on the international work pursued by many of the participants, some of whom traveled to Colombia or the Palestinian territories on what they said were fact-finding trips.

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