On Sept. 24, 2010 WGN’s Chicago Breaking News and an Associated Press (AP) report said the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) searched six addresses in Minneapolis and two in Chicago seeking what FBI spokesman Steve Warfield  called “evidence in support of an ongoing Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation into activities concerning the material support of terrorism.” Search warrants were served and no arrests were made.  Several anti-war activists in both cities were served with subpoenas to appear before a federal grand jury in Chicago in October. The FBI’s move took place in the same week the Department of Justice Inspector General criticized the agency for classifying protests as terrorism.

The Chicago searches were at two sites: the home of Joe Isobaker and Stephanie Weiner and of the apartment of Hatem Abudayyeh, Executive Director of the Chicago-based Arab American Action Network (AAAN). In addition, a grand jury subpoena was served on Thomas Burke, seeking records of payments to AAAN or Abudayyeh.

In Minneapolis six anti-war activists’ homes were searched. Three spoke to the press: Mick Kelly, Jess Sundin and Meredith Aby. All complained that the FBI is harassing anti-war protesters. Tm Dooley, Kelly’s lawyer, released a copy of the subpoena to the press. It seeks records of “any payment provided directly or indirectly to Hatam Abudayyeh.”  Kelly edits FightBack, which has published articles by Abudayyeh. The subpoena also seeks documents relating to Kelly’s travel to Colombia, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Israel and any travel in connection with his work for the Freedom Road Socialist organization.   Dooley call the FBI action a “fishing expedition.”

In the Chicago home of Isobaker and Weiner a dozen agents took most of the day to conduct the search. The FBI took their cell phones and 30 boxes of papers dating back to the 1970s. Their attorney, Melinda Power, told the AP the warrant referred to “unnamed terrorist organizations.” Weiner told the press she and Isobaker, her husband, are long-time anti-war and labor activists and viewed the search as an attempt to intimidate them.

On Sept. 26 Abudeyyah’s lawyer, Jim Fennerty told the AP that at least half a dozen agents searched Abudeyyah’s home while he was at the hospital with his seriously ill mother, taking any documents with the word “Palestine.” Fennerty also said he does not believe AAAN is the focus of the investigation.

Reaction has been swift. In Chicago, neighbors gathered around the Isobaker/Weiner home to protest during the FBI search, singing “Give Peace a Chance.” A protest in Milwaukee was held the day of the searches. The FightBack News! website has a statement condemning the searches and calling for protests, which are scheduled at FBI offices or federal buildings in 19 cities.  The Defending Dissent Foundation and Bill of Rights Defense Committee have both called for protests.

Conspiracy theory bloggers have already patched together a guilt-by-association article connecting Abudayyeh to a variety of left-wing organizations, characterizing his criticism of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights as support for terrorism. See here.

Material Support, Free Speech, Protest, Advocacy and the Supreme Court’s Humanitarian Law Project Decision

The Sept. 26 AP story noted that “Several activists said they thought the searches amounted to ‘fishing expeditions’ in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.” In that case, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the court held that it is constitutional for Congress to include a broad range of interactions with designated terrorist groups, including attempts at peace building and support for non-violence, in the definition of prohibited material support of terrorism.  However, the court’s opinion also said the prohibition does not apply to pure political speech and that “the statute is carefully drawn to cover only a narrow category of speech to, under the direction of, or in coordination with foreign groups that the speaker knows to be terrorist organizations.” [p. 21 of opinion] However, there is no definition of what is “coordinated,” leaving room for overly broad interpretations.

In addition, there have been problems with the government seeking sanctions for interactions with people or groups that are not on the U.S. list. For example, leaders of the Holy Land Foundation were convicted of material support for providing aid to local zakat committees that were not on the list, but that the government alleged were controlled by Hamas, which is on the list. The trial court did not require  the jury to find the defendants knew or should have known that these committees had Hamas connections.

The government’s use of counterterrorism programs and resources to target First Amendment activities has been well documented. For examples, see here.  Joint Terrorism Task Forces, collaborations between the FBI and state and local law enforcement, have been a major player in these investigations.   For details see this OMB Watch report and the ACLU website.