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Eco-Terrorism: Cracking Down on The ELF - 2002-05-29

The Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, is an underground group that attacks institutions it believes harms the environment. During the past five years, its members have caused approximately $40 million dollars in damages. ELF's most notorious acts of destruction include torching a luxury ski resort, destroying the executive offices of a forest-product company, and setting on fire university labs involved in genetically-modified crop research. For some time, environmentalists and others have debated whether this sort of activity was simply a public protest, or acts of terrorism. But since September 11, that debate has escalated with increased efforts to label those involved in such attacks as terrorists.

On a cold, January night in St. Paul, Minnesota, one or more members of the Earth Liberation Front set fire to a construction trailer parked on the University of Minnesota campus. Flames quickly spread to an adjacent building, causing $40,000 in damages.

But while the Crop Research Building burst into flames, the real target was the university's proposed Microbial and Genomics building - a $20 million undertaking.

The attack wasn't a surprise to Peggy Leppick. She's a state representative, who chairs the Higher Education Committee in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

"A lot of the research that goes on at the university is fairly obscure and people don't know about it," she explained. " But when you build a building that is essentially a monument to genomics and genetic engineering, it becomes a bulls-eye."

That's why university officials are asking the Legislature for nearly $4 million to beef up security. They've also ratcheted up the rhetoric. University of Minnesota president Mark Yudolf has no qualms about using the word "terrorist" to describe ELF members who've attacked his campus more than once.

"People who blow up facilities and buildings and who may try to avoid risking human life, but almost inevitably something can go wrong: that is my definition of a terrorist, yes," he said.

But attaching labels to actions doesn't come so easily for others. There's a fine distinction for some between terrorists and protesters.

"The definition of terrorist is a very political definition, " noted Katherine Sikkink, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.

"In this country, we have words for it. It's called 'crime.' We don't have to jump to the term 'terrorism.' When people destroy property, it's called 'crime.' We have police forces that are here to deal with crime and I think they should do it," she said.

Not surprisingly, Leslie James Pickering, a spokesman with the ELF press office in Portland, Oregon, agrees with Ms. Sikkink's characterization.

"If they were terrorists they would be engaging in violent terrorist actions. What they do is sabotage property," he said. "They've never harmed anybody. They never will harm anybody because it is against their code."

That code, Mr. Pickering says, ensures that human life will be protected. When ELF activists set fire to a building, they say it's searched before flames engulf the facility.

"They are vandals. They are arsonists. They are engaging in illegal activity, there's no question about that, but there is a difference between sabotage and terrorism," he said.

But that distinction may be lost in the rush to deal with terrorism, both foreign and domestic. The government appears on the verge of adding environmental groups such as the ELF to its "War on Terrorism."

A top F-B-I official has called ELF "the most active eco-terrorist" group in the United States. A Congressional Committee recently subpoenaed Leslie James Pickering's predecessor in the ELF press office to testify. When committee members weren't satisfied with his answers, they threatened him with contempt of Congress.

And now U.S. Congressman Gil Gutknecht, a Minnesota Republican, is calling for the death penalty if politically- motivated arsons or other actions result in a fatality. Congressman Gutknecht also wants the federal government to establish an "eco-terrorism" clearinghouse so law enforcement officials can do a better job of tracking environmental activists involved in illegal activity.

These proposals have drawn the ire of Chuck Samuelson, the executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union.

"September 11 has been a boon for people who are interested in making laws more strict, regulating society and limiting freedom," he said.

Mr. Samuelson says Gutknecht's death penalty proposal won't stop politically-motivated murders. And he's also opposed to a federal clearinghouse that tracks ELF members, saying it's likely to be secret.

"The question that always comes up is about the privacy rights of people, how that information gets put in, who gets to change that information and who gets to use that information," he said. " If it's secret and is not available to the public, so that you as a reporter couldn't go see it or do an investigative piece on how they're doing it, it's got to scare you."

Although Mr. Samuelson is quick to criticize the government's proposed crackdown on ELF, he's no defender of the group. He scoffs at the ELF code, saying no matter their 'no-harm-to-human-life' intent, it's only a matter of time before someone is killed.

Professor Sikkink also questions the group's tactics. While some protest movements have historically engaged in property damage to score political points, she says it comes with a high price tag.

"So these tactics, you know, of destruction of government property are not unheard of, they've been around for a long time, but I do think they really run the risk of alienating the people you want to convince," she said.

Despite the increased pressure on ELF to halt the violence, Leslie James Pickering, the group's spokesman, says he doesn't expect its members to change its ways anytime soon.

This report was provided by The Great Lakes Radio Consortium, which is a production of Michigan Radio. Support comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.