In the weeks following the Sept. 24, 2010 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) searches of anti-war activists’ homes and offices and serving grand jury subpoenas on 14 activists, protests around the country called the investigation harassment for the exercise of the right to free speech. On Oct. 5 all the activists that were subpoenaed said they would refuse to testify when called. On Oct. 12 the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the Department of Justice (DOJ) cancelled the subpoenas, a short term victory for the activists. However, it is not clear whether DOJ will continue the investigation it has said was related to material support of terrorism.

After the initial searches and serving the subpoenas, it appeared the investigation was expanding. Kosta Harlan, an anti-war activist who lives in Raleigh, NC refused an interview with FBI agents who came to his family home. Harlan told the Raleigh News Observer that he refused to talk to the FBI agents without his attorney present, and that later in the day FBI agents approached another activist Harlan had met in a coffee shop, wanting to know what the meeting was about. There were also reports of FBI visits to activists in California, Michigan and Wisconsin. One of the activists subpoenaed, Thistle Parker-Hartog, told the Star Tribune that “[w]e are hearing from more of our brothers and sisters around the country that they, too, are being looked at.”

Several news reports have noted that many of those subpoenaed or approached by the FBI were active in protests at the Republican National Convention in 2008.

The fact that DOJ cancelled the subpoenas does not mean the investigation and grand jury proceedings are over. The subpoenas could be re-issued, and those that are not targets of the investigation could be offered immunity, leaving them with the choice of testifying or risk being held in contempt of court for refusing to do so. Jim Fennerty, a lawyer representing several of the activists, told Chicago Public Radio that prosecutors can “get the judge to order you to answer the questions. If you don’t answer the question, you can be put in jail and held in civil contempt for the duration of the grand jury. There’s also a possibility later on they could charge you with criminal contempt.”

Push Back from Anti-War, Civil Rights, Religious and Free Speech Groups

The Anti-War Committee (AWC), one of the groups whose offices were searched, put out call for members to re-submit their contact information, since the FBI took all their files and electronic equipment, including computers and hard drives, cell phones. The board of directors of the Arab-American Action Network, whose executive director was the subject of one of the FBI searches and was subpoenaed to testify, issued a statement saying,”The FBI has overstepped its boundaries and targeted individuals based on their commitment to peacefully challenge U.S. policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Colombia.”

Many groups stepped forward to object to the investigation as an attempt to silence criticism of U.S. foreign policy. The Muslim Public Affairs Council issued a statement expressing concern, saying the FBI’s “connection between nonviolent work and material support of terrorism is disturbing and troubling for conscientious Americans concerned about policies that need to be addressed and need a place for public discourse.” A petition signed by many members of the Chicago faith community said the raids, “are a dangerous step to further criminalize dissent….An overly broad definition of ‘material support for terrorism’ in the June 2010 US Supreme Court ruling concerns us as people of faith who continue to be actively engaged in humanitarian work and peacemaking.” The Center for Constitutional Rights also posted an online petition addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder making three demands:

  • “Hold the FBI and all intelligence and police agencies accountable to stopping the repression against anti-war and international solidarity activists

  • Immediately return all possessions taken from the activists’ homes: computers, cell phones, papers, documents, etc.

  • End the illegitimate grand jury proceedings designed to intimidate and criminalize the targeted activists.”

Between the date of the initial raids and the cancellation of the subpoenas, there were protests at federal buildings around the country and at the FBI headquarters in Washington, DC. A coalition of supporters for the people subpoenaed to testify,, called for a national call in day on Oct. 19. Their site said 39 rallies demanding an end to the investigation have been held “from Minneapolis and Chicago, to Los Angeles, Atlanta, Kalamazoo MI and Dallas, TX.” Rallies were also reported in Salt Lake City and Philadelphia.

The National Lawyers Guild is providing legal assistance to those visited by the FBI, and set up a hotline at 888-NLG-ECOL. Their Know Your Rights pamphlet is online here.