Operation Backfire: Guilty Justice - FBI vs ELF

  • Posted on: 18 May 2007
  • By: pirate
It is useful to view 'Operation Backfire' in terms of a broader long-term trans-atlantic effort by international law enforcement agencies to stop 'eco-terrorism' and 'animal rights extremism'.

This document is reproduced from the newsletter 'Warrior Wind' No.3 produced in the U.S.A.


Introduction and Overview


Almost a year and a half has passed since December 7, 2005, when the first arrests of FBI’s “Operation Backfire” took place. Then as now, we recognized these arrests as not just an effort to stop “eco-sabotage,” but as an attack on broader circles. We have kept too long a silence over the past year, having last addressed the Backfire prosecutions in April, 2006. Last year saw arrests, informing and finally plea deals—some more principled than others—in these cases. We have also seen resistance and solidarity to varying degrees. It is time to take a look back, but also to think of the future. We do not believe that the so-called “Green Scare” is over, any more than we expect our rulers to cease hostilities against the planet and its people any time soon, at least on their own accord. The statements and predictions we’ve made in previous issues have not all been equally sage, but we continue to know whose side we’re on. This article not only intends to be a factual update, but also to place instances of repression and fight-back within a broader context. We start from the simplest points, the basic unfolding of events from late April of last year until now.


Briana Waters continues to face charges in Washington federal court. Her charges relate to a single arson, carried out against the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture. A new indictment issued on May 10, 2006 includes a “destructive device” charge, carrying with it a 30-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. Briana Waters is the mother of a young child, and is currently released on court-ordered supervision. She is proceeding to trial on her charges—this trial is currently set for September 17 in federal court for the Western District of Washington—and asserts her innocence.


Informants in this case include Kevin Tubbs, Jennifer Kolar and Lacey Phillabaum. On October 15, Phillabaum and Kolar entered guilty pleas in the federal court of Tacoma, Washington, regarding the Urban Horticulture action. Kolar also pled guilty to two other incidents during this hearing, one in Colorado and one in Oregon. Kolar faces a suggested sentence of 5 – 7 years, while Phillabaum faces a suggested sentence of 3 – 5 years. Both Kolar and Phillabaum are fully cooperating with the authorities. Sentencing for these two is expected to be pushed back until the end of Waters’ trial.


When we last wrote, Nathan Block and Joyanna Zacher had joined eight others facing charges in the Oregon federal eco-sabotage cases, these two having been accused of involvement with arsons at the Jefferson Poplar tree farm in Clatskanie, and the Romania Chevrolet Truck Center in Eugene. Nathan and Joyanna both remain in Lane County Jail at the time of writing. The Oregon federal cases against those who have been captured—Bill Rodgers died two weeks after his ’05 arrest in an apparent suicide, several people have still not been apprehended, and prime informant Jake Ferguson has not yet been charged with a single crime—have now all ended in plea deals. These deals can broadly be categorized into two types—the plea deals of those who agree to fully assist the state, and the plea deals of those who refuse to testify against or incriminate others. Sadly, there are six defendants of the former, and only four of the latter kind.


On July 20 and 21, Darren Thurston, Kevin Tubbs, Kendall Tankersley (Sarah Kendall Harvey), Stanislas Meyerhoff, Chelsea Gerlach and Suzanne Savoie entered pleas in Oregon federal court. Some of these defendants had been known as informants for some time, while the cooperation of others was a more recent revelation. Lawyers for these six, in cooperation with the court, have suppressed the details of their clients’ cooperation agreements. However, their collaboration with the authorities is assumed to be substantial, and certainly includes providing information and testimony for any future prosecutions. Indeed, lawyers for these defendants argued in open court that, if the terms of cooperation were made public, their clients would be immediately labeled as “snitches.” Pleading guilty to a range of conspiracy, arson and attempted arson charges, these cooperating defendants received the following suggested sentences:

Darren Thurston, 37 months; Kevin Tubbs, 168 months; Kendall Tankersley, 51 months; Stanislas Meyerhoff, 188 months; Chelsea Gerlach, 120 months; and Suzanne Savoie, 63 months.


Prior to the plea deal hearings of July, Chelsea Gerlach, Stanislas Meyerhoff, Josephine Overaker and Rebecca Rubin were indicted on May 18 by a Colorado federal grand jury for their alleged involvement in the 1998 arson at the Vail ski resort. (Josephine Overaker and Rebecca Rubin are two of those still being sought by the authorities in relation to the sabotage cases.) For Gerlach and Meyerhoff, their Oregon federal pleas incorporate the Colorado charges. On September 29, they were arraigned for these charges, and on December 14 they entered guilty pleas. Gerlach and Meyerhoff are not expected to serve more time in prison due to these charges.


In the period following these plea deals, lawyers for the four remaining non-cooperating District of Oregon defendants argued in court for production of material from possible National Security Agency warrantless wiretap surveillance against their clients. Prosecutors had long dodged these motions, and defense lawyers began to force the point. While defense attorneys laid out some interesting and logical arguments as to why such surveillance was likely to have been used against their clients, nobody now has any more proof (or disproof) of this surveillance than when the discovery motions were first entered. It should be noted, however, that prosecutors seem to have become more willing to discuss alternate plea deals during this period of intensive motions and counter-motions to the court.


With the dropping of the motions for NSA discovery just days before, on November 9 the remaining Oregon defendants entered into a “global resolution” plea deals. Unlike previous plea deals, these defendants admitted solely their individual participation in certain actions, but explicitly refused to identify, testify against or otherwise implicate others in crimes. Furthermore, the complete plea deals of these defendants have been made public in their entirety. During the November 9 plea hearing, Joyanna Zacher and Nathan Block pled guilty to their own involvement in the Romania Chevrolet and Jefferson Poplar fires, both receiving 96-month suggested sentences. Daniel McGowan likewise received a 96-month suggested sentence for his involvement in the Superior Lumber and Jefferson Poplar fires, while Jonathan Paul received a 60-month suggested sentence for his part in the burning of the Cavel West horsemeat plant.


Formal sentencing for all defendants—cooperating and non- cooperating—is scheduled to begin in the middle of this month, continuing until early June (see sidebar.) Federal prosecutors will argue during these hearings for “terrorism” enhancements to the suggested sentences under Section 3A1.4 of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. This sentence enhancement could lead to defendants spending their prison terms in maximum security settings, have lifelong consequences for them such as being unable to travel overseas, and possibly even add to the length of their sentences, at the judge’s discretion. Even in the District of Oregon, conflict surrounding these cases is far from over—this takes the form of both limited fights within the courts, as well as what we hope will be more widespread interpersonal, political and social challenges.


A Look at Some Previous Statements, and Subsequent Debate


We do not wish to exaggerate the importance of our writing, but the many developments since our last newsletter suggest that revisiting some themes and specific statements in previous issues would be helpful. When we first wrote on the Backfire arrests in February of 2006, we commented that “Beyond the sniveling behavior of others, and media scare stories about a fictional ‘eco-terror network,’ the state has nothing...” Clearly, this has changed. With the exception of Briana Waters— whose Washington federal trial is still pending—the state now has a mass of “guilty” pleas from those who have been captured. This fact does not alter in any way our conviction that the so-called “Family” of “eco-terrorists” is a deliberate invention of the state, designed to portray horizontal relations and self-organized revolt as something that is instead cultish, militaristic and hierarchically- structured. The state projects its own logic onto its opponents—a point that we feel cannot be stressed enough as prosecutors try to fit the “terrorist” jacket onto defendants at sentencing.


In our two previous issues, we made statements as to which defendants were operating as informants, and which were not. Upon releasing each newsletter, more informants were confirmed each time. This has been a disheartening process, and the decision by Darren Thurston— who was esteemed by many—to begin cooperation proved especially difficult. The state has benefited from informant-defendants in two ways: first through the immediate violence against co-defendants and the uncaptured from such testimony, and also by secondary damage to radical circles on the outside. For as long as alleged enemies of our system base most of their support for prisoners not on clear ideas of affinity and solidarity, but rather on attraction to personalities—perhaps based on someone’s past reputation—it will be difficult to avoid a repeat of the farcical, yet draining, disputes of late-2006. We do not wish to reopen the pseudo-debates and stupid controversy of last year, but we do wish to make two basic points. Firstly, it is an absolutely topsy-turvy position to accuse non-informants and their supporters as “spreading division,” for their act of remaining dignified while others crumpled. Secondly, the argument that those who held out longest on their “not guilty” pleas should be condemned for deception and manipulation of supporters, is a contemptible pro- establishment perspective. There is nothing virtuous about “honestly” rushing to sacrifice oneself and others at the altar of the state. Our writings have never centralized the issue of “guilt” or “innocence”—neither our horribly deformed society nor its justice deserves respect. This is not to suggest that the real-world effects of legalisms should be ignored—growing surveillance, mass imprisonment and more subtle threats, are all part of the world order we oppose. As we cannot merely wish them away, legal outposts deserve our reconnaissance.


The Question of Legality when Responding to Repression


December 7, 2006 marked the one-year anniversary of the first Backfire arrests. On or around that day, 43 cities on four continents held solidarity and educational events relating to the Backfire cases as well as the broader “Green Scare.” This sort of international coordination, the creation and distribution of counter- information, and the raising of funds for defense campaigns, are all significant and worthwhile activities. We hope that they can be built upon. Accompanying the call for action on December 7, was the disclaimer:

“Remember, everything you do to support people who are targets of prosecution should be LEGAL and in their best interest. Many are in pre- trial or in an appeal process; please do not organize something that could jeopardize their cases.”


We respect the comrades who issued this call for action, and especially admire their insistence on the best interests of targets of repression. However, we also believe that the issue of legality needs to be examined more closely. We are not trying to impugn to the authors of the Dec. 7 call any beliefs that they may not actually hold; we merely use their statement as a point of departure. During an open court hearing regarding Jeff Hogg (see below) and the Oregon Operation Backfire- related grand jury, one lawyer working on defense efforts, and another correspondent for Portland Indymedia, were both indirectly threatened by federal prosecutors for having publicly presented their views surrounding the cases. The government threat, as always, went like this: if you keep on with your present course, you will be criminalized, and those you support will suffer too. Even what could normally be conceived of as the most legal and by-the-books support for defendants, therefore, gets lumped into the category of the potentially, and at some stage actually, criminal. Especially as formal sentencing approaches, there is a clear desire in many quarters not to create any pretext for further repression. This impulse is partially understandable, but its logic may also be dangerous.


When faced with a potential social threat, it is naïve to think that the authorities remain on the level of legality. Rather, they bend or break the rules, in order to neutralize whatever they perceive as troublesome. In Italy, at a time of high social struggle, a 1969 bombing at the Piazza Fontana in Milan was used to justify the arrest of four thousand anarchists, radicals and workers. One of those arrested, Giuseppe Pinelli, “accidentally” fell to his death during a police interrogation. The Piazza Fontana bombing was later discovered to be the work of neo-fascists working with extensive NATO and US government cooperation. While it is clear that poorly thought-through actions, no matter how strongly we associate with any underlying motivation of revolt, can do real damage, it is also clear that the state’s violence operates at a high degree of autonomy from any resistance by the oppressed. If there is not a pretext for repression, our rulers will create one soon enough, or they will change the laws in order to suppress every perceived defiance. This makes a mockery out of any call for strictly “legal” activity.


To functionally respond to repression, including that of the Backfire prosecutions, therefore means a continual widening, rather than narrowing, of our options. This is no excuse for reckless activity. We do not make a fetish out of “illegality,” or even suggest it as a primary course. Rather, we see any attempt to situate acceptable intervention strictly within ever-dwindling “legality,” as ultimately self-defeating and suicidal. As long as the government sees its repressive strategies as effective at keeping the rabble in line, it will continue them and enlarge them. Our conception of solidarity, therefore, is not one of “legality” or “illegality,” both of which are categories that need to be transcended. Beyond any immediate support for a specific defendant, we should ask ourselves questions such as: Does our way of doing things lead to self-repression, or to an increased confidence in our own strengths and capabilities? Is our approach creative rather than stereotypical? To what degree does it open up opportunities for more widespread struggle?


The “Green Scare” and Democratic Terror


Operation Backfire is widely perceived as being the cornerstone of a broader “Green Scare.” While we ourselves have used “Green Scare” as short-hand, the term needs to be looked at critically. The phrase “Green Scare” is useful in that it at least places the present campaign within a historical continuum, a chain that certainly includes the First Red Scare of the late Teens (including the Palmer Raids and mass deportations) as well as the “McCarthyism” of the Second Red Scare (late ‘40s – ‘50s.) The drawback of this term is that it can mystify the nature of repression, which is ongoing and everyday, by describing it as an occasional event or aberration from the democratic norm. In reality, repression and imprisonment are fundamental aspects of our democracy. Prison populations have skyrocketed over the last three decades, with over two million people behind bars in the U.S. alone, wholly comparable to a new plantation system. The U.S. Constitution spelled out this development over a century beforehand, in the 13th Amendment ratified in the aftermath of the Civil War:


“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”


No matter what its lofty origins, the ideal of democracy is mainly a deception. Our democratic system talks of basic liberties, and then denies them; it speaks of participation, but it means the choice between Coke and Pepsi. A proper explanation as to why this is so would require a lengthy historical discussion. There are only a few points we can make in a much shorter space. To begin, violence is perversely maintained by any system that claims it has no place for violence, as this proclamation simply makes sure that citizens avert their gaze or make excuses when institutions are responsible. Secondly, democracy is the system that exists while each of us scramble for property or some “better” social position day-to-day; the cruel games we’re caught up in create the dominant version of politics. Finally, our right to “have an opinion” within democracy is tied to our powerlessness to create real change. We may not want pollution, but we’re going to get it no matter what we think. Within a “tolerant” and “participatory” system, our opinions are the same as our acceptance. To vote becomes a proclamation that one will put up with both pollution and police.


We therefore view Operation Backfire as but one tile in a mosaic of force and servility. Repression of radicals is not something new, nor has it ever gone away. The striking difference between Operation Backfire and the Palmer Raids or the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, is that these earlier campaigns of repression happened in periods of intense social struggle. At those points in history the State felt that the society it defended was imminent danger from mass defection and upheaval. Ironically, such past disruptions often proceeded under the banner of “inclusion”—for the poor, immigrants, women or the Black population. This was at once the tactical brilliance of these movements—allowing them to harness the energy of those who had suffered exclusion long enough—and also the seeds of their defeat, as they were caught off guard by the real workings of a system they idealized and wanted to improve.


By the early 1990s, urban theorist Mike Davis described the growth of the Blood, Crip and other street gangs in Los Angeles in relation to the decline of any sustainable vision of a better society. Davis’ book, City of Quartz, highlights the development from earlier street “sets” of the ‘50s and ‘60s, some of which eventually took an active role against immediate racism and poverty, to the later Blood and Crip gangs, whose rebellion was textured by drive-by shootings plus the economics of Crack cocaine supply and demand. In response to such gangs, Los Angeles authorities mounted their “Operation Hammer,” a racist dragnet operation that, in perfect keeping with the overall “War on Drugs,” filled the prisons with potential troublemakers as a part of a counter-revolutionary rollback strategy. Not long after Davis’ book described the seemingly hopeless situation on the LA streets, that same city exploded in rebellion following the Rodney King-beating verdict. That rebellion—majority Chicano but with significant Black and other racial involvement, and in any case fundamentally a class fight-back— was the high water mark of resistance within the US over the last 20 years. It was also ruthlessly suppressed.


Both the LA Rebellion and internal attempts to resist the first Gulf War, informed another generation of radicals that followed, many of whom were just entering their teens when these events occurred. The generation of Seattle ’99 as well as the generation of the early Earth Liberation Front, connected earlier historical lessons to their own concerns. In the context of an increasingly fragmented society, a toxic environment, absurd rulers, and meaningless work as the best prospect offered, people gradually began once again to ask root questions. There was an effort, however fumbling, to examine how humans treat other humans, as well as to how a ruling social order treats human and non- human animals alike. Sabotage was one response given to our miserable society. Such sabotage predates, and has always gone far beyond, that attributable to the Earth and Animal Liberation Fronts. For every spectacular action such as the Vail arson, there have been innumerable examples of modest, small-scale sabotage, carried out invisibly by diverse numbers of people. While sabotage alone cannot bring forth the new ways of life we desire, it nevertheless is encouraging for the strong response it gives to our society, at least in purely negative terms. Many people tracking Operation Backfire have been shocked by revelations of the government expenditure involved in investigating and prosecuting these property crime cases. According to the Eugene Weekly, thirty federal agents were assigned from 2002 onwards to a Eugene task force investigating the sabotage. This figure ignores the additional expense of bribes given to informants on the outside, such as the $50,000 reward that may have been paid to a central informant, Jake Ferguson. Even if we accept that the accused caused millions of dollars in property damage, it seems clear that the government’s Operation Backfire is not exclusively aimed towards individuals—nobody accuses the defendants of a single arson over the past five years, so it would have cost the state exactly zero dollars to get them to stop. Instead, the government targets an overall social tendency. The state will spare no expense to eliminate subversive tendencies, not so much for what individuals are reported to have done, but for what a greater future constituency could do. Our rulers are afraid that we will revolt, because—even by the admission of our government’s smartest policy advisors—we have every reason to do just this. In the sixties, radical movements, when they were not straight up repressed, were all too often seduced by visions of a better life made in capitalism’s own image. In today’s society, the quality of illusions is shabbier than ever, even if our system still keeps itself together through an apparatus of illusion. The most convincing spectacles today are those of horror—terrorism, ethnic or religious massacre, ecological collapse. Each of these spectacles do have a certain real basis—human society is genuinely at a crisis point, and it’s increasingly hard to imagine any way for this society to avoid catastrophe on a far greater scale than the mass slaughters of the Twentieth Century. Yet our society’s presentation of its own deep crisis, perversely recruits the population to stay in line, even to desperately clamor for fewer freedoms and less dignity.


We find ourselves in a situation not only of worsening conditions, but also of ubiquitous doublethink and the degradation of language. Matters have gone so far that it is earth-liberationist damage to property that becomes labeled as “terrorism,” while few take our society to task for its cultivation of widespread terror for profit or for politics, including the diffuse environmental terror performed by industrialists each day. However, human imperatives—biological, intellectual and emotional—have not yet been utterly reduced. Just as such imperatives organized themselves into the anvil that eventually broke the Los Angeles “Hammer,” we may still choose to live today, shattering the alleged continuity of interests between the rulers and the ruled. While we do not cheerlead for any particular tactic—let alone group—it is clear that only through multiform insubordination can people continue to find the best in both themselves and each other. We unreservedly support, and hope to play a part in, such a process. We do not support the “green scare” defendants merely out of a sense of charity, and we certainly don’t claim to speak for any of them. Just as we oppose this latest repression, we say to hell with the whole mess of work, prison, and war.