U.S. Government Impunity At Home: The Politicization of “Terrorism”

January 1, 2000

The history of the United States is loaded with cases of government commission of international crimes against other nations, and against the individual citizens of other nations, in which the U.S. government has enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, absolute impunity from any accountability, sanctions or punishment. This historic record of U.S. criminality is a very good reason why the Clinton Administration and people like Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) are absolutely opposed to creation of a U.N. International Criminal Court (ICC) unless the U.S. retains effective veto power over prosecution of any U.S. personnel. Otherwise, the court might be in perennial session just dealing with the crimes committed by thousands of employees of the U.S. government, including virtually all of our Presidents, most Congresspeople, and voluminous numbers of CIA, U.S. military, and other security and military personnel.

Furthermore, people of "minority" background in the United States have experienced two centuries worth of grotesque violations of their human rights–murders by the hand of the state or sanctioned by the state, unfair imprisonment, police and jail beatings, and a myriad of other indignities, again with U.S. or various states’ governments enjoying absolute impunity from any accountability. People of European ancestry who have harshly criticized the state or the unfairness of capitalism have also suffered repression at the hands of the government with no redress, such as many labor movement participants and those branded as "communists" before the hostile House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC (1938-1975).

However, I didn’t seem to fit into any of those categories and I had never really experienced such persecution. I was a clean-cut WASP who had always been loyal to my God and country. When I clearly stated my opposition to the Vietnam War, especially the daily village bombings, while serving as an officer there, I was threatened with punishment, but after all, by 1969 millions of U.S. Americans were questioning the war. Not until 1990 did I learn that the FBI had interviewed my uncle Bob, my father’s youngest brother,on two occasions in 1969 when I was first beginning to express my opposition to the Vietnam war. I was very surprised to have first learned this more than twenty years after the fact. I believe my uncle’s silence had something to do with my family feeling ashamed that their small-town boy they hoped would become "successful" was being investigated for possible "treasonous" activities.

I did not become vigorously active in the "peace with justice" movement in the United States until after my first trip to Nicaragua in January and February l986. Prior to that time, I enjoyed my Constitutionally protected free speech rights as an "American" citizen. Nominally active for several years, I spoke at anti-U.S.-intervention rallies, lobbied Congress to stop funding Contra terrorists in Nicaragua and death squad governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, wrote letters and op-ed essays for publication in local newspapers, and spoke to high school students about war and peace issues as a member of the Massachusetts-based Veterans Education Project.

Certainly if my elected representatives knew the truth about what was really happening with their policies outside Washington, I reasoned, they would immediately reverse policies that were violating international laws by terrorizing and murdering innocent people. I had been taught that we were a nation of laws, not of men, committed to justice under the law. And in grade school civics class we had learned how a bill becomes a law, and how laws and policies in general are formulated by those elected to represent the people guided by their oath to uphold the Consititution of the United States of America.

For a number of years in the 1970s and early 1980s I worked on domestic justice issues, mostly relating to the needless and destructive proliferation of prisons which, by their inherent nature, brutalize prisoners and guards alike. I wrote a number of articles and drafted numerous pieces of legislation attacking both the classist and racist nature of imprisonment in the U.S., which has historically been used as a political substitute for choosing to address serious social, economic, and racial injustices. I found this work relatively thankless with few constituents who were willing to take up the cause.

But my awareness and feelings about the crimes and lies of U.S. foreign policy–a natural outgrowth of my Vietnam experiences–remained locked in my soul until a flashback unexpectedly erupted in 1981. During the early 1980s I knew of no evidence that the U.S. government–the government that acts and speaks in our names as U.S. citizens–was in any way responsive to expressions of moral and political outrage opposing our lawless U.S. foreign policy. However, I was soon to discover that they did respond, not by changing their foreign policy, but by lawlessly attacking constitutionally protected domestic dissent by using "terrorism" as a fraudulent pretext for their suppression activities.

In 1986 I was one of four fasters taking part in the water-only Veterans Fast For Life (VFFL) while sitting on the U.S. Capitol steps in Washington, D.C. in protest of Contra aid, a fast that ultimately lasted forty-seven days. On October 10, 1986, forty days into the fast, U.S. Senator Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) released a letter about the Veterans Fast, stating in part, "In my opinion, their actions are hardly different than those of the terrorists who are holding our hostages in Beirut." This letter was reported as a news story in the Oct. 11 Boston Globe, "Rudman Likens Fasting Veterans To Terrorists." We thought it a strange connection at the time, and wondered whether the idea had come up in one of the private Congressional conversations or secret intelligence briefings. During the fast, our staffed office was broken into, the computer tinkered with, and our residence was broken into with written information about supporters names and addresses taken. At the time we never dreamed that our action would be perceived as a threat to national security justifying a "terrorist" label and the associated illegal surveillance that accompanies such an identification.

Since then, each of us veterans has continued to publicly, often boldly, exercise our rights as political "activists." While still recovering in the hospital from the multiple injuries I suffered as a result of the gruesome train assault during an action on September 1, 1987 at the Concord, CA Naval Weapons Station, I was interviewed by the first of many allegedly impartial investigators of what was continually referred to as the "accident." I was struck by the first question: "When did you begin to discuss plans for hijacking the train?" I was stunned that the investigator even considered it a valid question. "Where on earth did that idea come from?" I wondered. It was the first clue that I had that the government had conjured up a wild scenario of their own imagination, of their own making.

After an ABC-TV crew interviewed me in November 1987, in Washington, D.C., I began to believe, just a little bit, that the government had a particular interest in us fasters. It seemed incredible. I was increasingly aware of and disgusted by FBI surveillance of domestic groups and individuals opposed to Reagan’s Central American policies, so I could easily believe it about others. But me? The ABC-TV reporter showed me a thick FBI file and asked me to read the first few pages while on camera. Though it was not a Brian Willson file as far as I could determine, the file was discussing the Veterans Fast For Life of which I had been a part a year earlier. It said something to the effect that the members of the fast, under "terrorism" guidelines, were suspected of being part of "an organized conspiracy to use force/violence to
coerce the United States government into modifying its policies." It talked about the importance of our government’s Central American policies to the security of the United States, and the increasing efforts by citizens to stimulate civilian resistance throughout the United States threatening disruption of those policies. Gee, the government considered four veterans fasting on water-only while sitting on the east steps of the U.S. Capitol building "terrorists?" What did that say about the mind-set of our government and its political leaders and bureaucrats?

On November 18, 1987, I testified at the Congressional hearings about the September 1st train assault at the Concord, California Naval Weapons Station where I had almost been killed. Or murdered? Yes, the Republican members of the Congressional committee had treated me rudely and censored the vast majority of my prepared testimony. That was not surprising. A few days earlier, US Navy Captain Stanley Pryzby had testified at those same House Armed Services Subcommittee on Investigations hearings, at which he admitted that the Navy had indeed known quite a bit about me prior to September 1. He acknowledged that the Navy knew I was a serious protestor, and thus had taken my notification of planned blockades of munitions trains very seriously. Therefore, they must have believed me when I said that we would remain on the tracks intending to obstruct movement of the munitions train, that we were not "playing chicken." Thus, they knew I was a dead duck if a decision was made to not stop the train. Of course, in the past they had always stopped for protestors awaiting physical removal and arrests. They would not consider running the train, knowing we would not move. Or would they?

Apparently, at some level, I was perceived as a threat to the government and its policies, along with the other members of the VFFL. Though nonviolent, our action had publicly and boldly–and perhaps effectively as perceived by the Reagan administration–opposed U.S. foreign policy. Duncan Murphy, a World War II veteran who was one of the four participants in the Veterans Fast, was also part of the planned train blockade. They were dealing with two "terrorists," not just one. Again, I could easily believe that other people, especially those who advocated violence, were the objects of serious investigations and intense surveillance. Why spend so much time and effort on us nonviolent activists?

Perhaps the government has another definition of "violence." Perhaps it considers any action that threatens to upset or disrupt the capability of the government and business to continue to function as usual, "terrorism," and by some distorted logic, "violent." This I think we can clearly see in the December 1999 demonstrations against the WTO in Seattle and the April 2000 demonstrations against the World Bank in Washington, D.C. These large-scale nonviolent demonstrations were so effective that they either literally stopped government functioning or seriously threatened to do so. This effectiveness justified, in the police and politicians’ minds, a brutal and violent reaction to perfectly nonviolent and constitutionally protected citizen dissent. The demonstrators were considered bad, even "violent" in some cases, merely because they were sufficiently tenacious in their devotion to collective nonviolence to be able to disrupt business as usual. The truth is, civil disobedience is a very powerful form of action. If the government can convince themselves–and the public–that effective nonviolent activists are dangerous–portray them at least potentially violent–that gives them permission to use violence in suppressing them. The police have now normalized violent reactions in such cases. The police have erased the distinction between direct nonviolent civil disobedience, and violence. The system seems to believe in protected free speech only if it is ineffective.

I am not a paranoid person. But the FBI terrorism investigation of the VFFL that was begun in the Fall of 1986 automatically authorized the FBI to conduct telephone, mail and other surveillance of the subjects. For months after the 1987 train assault, the vast majority of the voluminous mail I received had been obviously opened, then often resealed in plastic. How does one, once identified as a threat to the government, no matter how loosely the threat is defined, become genuinely freed of various forms of surveillance by the government and its network of private and public spies? Even if the government claimed the investigation was completed, how would one know if it was telling the truth? Our government, by its own admission for "national security" reasons, operates in secrecy and with "plausible deniability." Any conscientious observer knows how lawless our government is: Note, for example, its defiance of the 1986 World Court order to cease funding the Contras terrorizing Nicaragua, its numerous illegal interventions into the sovereign affairs of dozens of other nations using various kinds of terrorism, and its abuse of our own Constitution in undermining the right to free speech and dissent.

Because no jurisdiction–City of Concord, County of Contra Costa, State of California, or U.S. Government–was willing to bring criminal charges against any of the persons involved in the commission of the September 1, 1987 crime at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, we were forced to attempt redress through federal court in a civil proceeding. Thus, the government had committed this crime with absolute impunity from any criminal prosecution.

During deposition proceedings in federal court in San Francisco in the late 1980s, U.S. prosecutors and train crew lawyers grilled me for over forty hours. They focused much of their attention on my trips to Nicaragua and El Salvador. They were quite concerned about my personal relationship with the FSLN (Sandinistas) in Nicaragua, and especially with their President Daniel Ortega and their Foreign Minister, Miguel Brockman D’Escoto. Ortega, they believed, was part of an international communist plot, working closely with Castro and Russia to threaten the values of the Christian capitalists of North America. They hinted that I was a paid representative of the Nicaraguan government and, therefore, should have registered with our State Department as an agent of a foreign government (Foreign Agents Registration Act). They also hinted that I served as a spy for the Sandinista-led Nicaraguan government when I (with two other gringos) spent a number of hours conversing with Eugene Hasenfus who had been shot down over Nicaragua as he was "kicking" supplies out of a CIA supply plane to Contras in the Nicaraguan countryside. Hasenfus had been captured after parachuting to safety and was awaiting trial in a Nicaraguan prison. The U.S. government had abandoned Hasenfus, denying that it had any official connection to him. Hasenfus, who had served in Vietnam, first as a soldier and then with the CIA, claimed that he was working directly for Vice President George Bush through long time CIA operative Max Gomez. He was bitter about being abandoned, not even being acknowledged, by his own government. During the course of our conversations he outlined the twelve missions he had participated in "kicking" supplies to the Contras, all originating from the Il Opango air base near San Salvador, El Salvador, half flown in over Honduras, the remainder coming in from Costa Rica after flying down the Pacific coast. There was nothing earth shaking about this information. It filled in some details on Contra supply operations and we had made this information public on several occasions. However, the lawyers grilling me at the deposition spent much time attempting to paint an intricate pattern of my relationship with Nicaragua in which their conclusion seemed to be that I was helping "communist" Nicaragua while trying to harm the noble, god-fearing "free" United States of A
merica. Of course all these activities had occurred prior to the train assault, and information about them was readily available to the FBI and other federal agencies providing them with more profiling data.

In my case, some might say I have tenaciously continued my political activities since almost being killed on September 1, 1987. However, the bulk of my activities have been nothing more than speaking to various groups of people or writing essays about the lawless nature of our government’s policies, and the destructive nature of many the values dominating our culture. I have traveled to well over half our states since the 1986 Fast, and to nearly two dozen other countries, invited to many others as well. My message is simple: Our government is lawless, it lies regularly about its own activities, and it commits numerous crimes in both domestic and international arenas. We as people of conscience, with mindfulness, can choose to empower ourselves to take personal and social responsibility for our society. We can choose to work to make the changes necessary for a nonviolent revolution of consciousness based on justice and ecological principles, rather than continue a paradigm based on greed and violent consumption. We the people, with sufficient political will, are perfectly capable of committing to a process of extricating ourselves from further ignorant complicity in perpetuating this old paradigm that is killing us all. We are, or can choose to be, part of a new consciousness.

When I have traveled to other countries I have discovered, as do other U.S. citizens, surprising access to revolutionary and popular movements. There is great merit in this kind of international solidarity as it builds up cumulative fields of empowerment. In my case, since I survived an assault that nearly took my life as a price for expressing my opposition to U.S. arms shipments, I represent, especially to people in "Third World" countries, a solidarity with struggle, suffering and empowerment. This phenomenon of human solidarity and trust is often beyond my cognitive understanding, yet it is always experienced as very powerful and spiritual. It is that power, perhaps, that poses a serious threat to the prevailing paradigm and the government and related institutions that promote and protect it.

I believe that the decision to continue moving, then accelerating the munitions train to more than three times the posted legal speed limit, at the Concord Naval Weapons Station on September 1, l987, cannot be understood outside the context of this demonstrated interest of the U.S. government, and all of its nefarious networks, in my (and Duncan’s) activities prior to Sept. 1. The nature of the relationship between this prior interest and the decision to recklessly move the train has yet to be unraveled. At a minimum it created a milieu of lack of concern, wanton disregard and contempt for the rights and well-being of conscientious U.S. citizens objecting to U.S. government policy. At worst it was attempted murder. It certainly was reckless and dangerous behavior. If we were "terrorists," as the government claimed they believed, then we might have had explosives taped to our bodies capable of creating a huge crater and widespread area damage once ignited by impact with a speeding munitions train. These trains regularly carry lethal munitions. The legal speed limit of 5 MPH with two human spotters posted on the very front platform of every locomotive are features designed to promote the maximum safety for a train carrying explosive cargo. We do know that the train crew members on the morning of the assault were briefed by their superiors not to stop the train, not to allow any of us to board the train. This would be consistent with a perception, a paranoia, that we were planning to climb aboard and hijack the moving train. Nonetheless, it is a strange concern since the Navy munitions base was protected by three hundred armed Marines, some of whom were standing only a few yards from our nonviolent blockade. And the maximum penalty for interfering with movement of federal trains and their cargoes was posted on a large sign just a few feet from our vigil and blockade: one year in jail and/or a $10,000 fine. Nothing was said about summary execution or maiming.

My theory is that sometime during the last part of September or early October 1986, a decision was made by the government, perhaps by the Operations Sub-Group (OSG) to Combat Terrorism, working under the aegis of Col. Oliver North, FBI Assistant Director Buck Revell, and Vice President George Bush, to begin covert surveillance of the Veterans Fast For Life. After all, this OSG had chosen to investigate a number of other so-called "terrorist" suspects. This would help explain Senate Intelligence Committee member Warren Rudman’s (R-N.H.) remarks made in early October comparing the fasters to "terrorists," as well as the break-in at the VFFL office and the subsequent break-in at the home of the Fasters where lists of names were taken.

The FBI inquiry, launched under "terrorism" guidelines, did not originate until October 31, 1986, several weeks later. The evidence the FBI used to legitimize their investigation of the VFFL was their claim that they found two VFFL leaflets at the scene of a vandalism at a Chicago recruiting office, and a "communiqué" that the fasters had motivated the vandals. The FBI attributed the vandalism to the "Plowshares Group." VFFL had produced several flyers describing the motives and basis for our fast, and had distributed them to a number of church and Central American solidarity groups, asking that they escalate and publicize their nonviolent resistance to the lawless policies.

Former FBI agent Jack Ryan, fired after 21 years as a Special Agent because he refused to investigate the Plowshares Group or the Veterans Fast For Life under "terrorism" guidelines, said that the FBI memorandum of October 31, l986, originating the investigation, was unusual, even suspicious, for two major reasons. First, the act investigated was minor vandalism of recruiting offices, an insignificant crime in FBI experience. But it led the local Chicago FBI office to initiate a national "priority" communication to every field office and the Director in Washington, D.C. Ryan said minor vandalism of this sort would rarely, if ever, be the basis of a priority national communication from a local office. It is so unusual and extraordinary as to lead one to believe the FBI had another motive in this case.

The second thing that raised suspicion in Ryan’s mind about the FBI investigation is the fact that the October 31 communication authored by the local Chicago office had already identified a national code name, "Lockout," for this minor case. This is extraordinarily unusual, and again suggests another motive and plan behind the FBI communication. What was their real motive and what did they really believe about us? Were we perceived as having become "dangerously" effective?

Let us hope for more "terrorists" willing to nonviolently disrupt the continuation of the U.S. Government’s policies of lies and violence as usual. We act with the faith that one day the people making and carrying out our government’s cruel policies will hear our cries and those of les miserables around the world.

One Comment

  1. Posted August 3, 2023 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    What’s up colleagues, fastidious post and good urging commented here, I am truly enjoying by these.

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