Anti-War Activist Gets Five Years for Junking Computer

Times Staff Writer

A San Francisco peace activist was sentenced Monday to five years in prison and ordered to pay $500,000 restitution for destroying a sophisticated military navigational computer she believed was designed for global nuclear war.

As dozens of courtroom supporters wept and sang, Susan (Katya) Komisaruk was led away in handcuffs to begin serving time for her conviction on one count of destroying government property in connection with the late-night attack at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

U.S. District Judge William J. Rea rejected requests to allow Komisaruk to remain free on bail pending appeal and imposed an unexpectedly stiff sentence that he said was designed “to pass the word along that you can’t do these things and get a slap on the wrist.”

“She says she has obeyed a higher law. Well, if every person in this country could take (the law) into his or her hands . . . we would have a society of anarchy,” the judge said. “We cannot permit you and others motivated as you are to destroy taxpayers’ property merely because you feel that what is going on in this country is not to your liking.”


Komisaruk’s attorney, noted civil rights lawyer Leonard Weinglass, predicted the sentence would have little deterrent value for peace activists contemplating acts of civil disobedience.

“As a matter of fact, any realistic assessment of this tells you that it will only increase the direct action of the anti-nuclear, anti-militarist movement,” Weinglass said. “They have succeeded in making a martyr, not in deterring anyone.”

Komisaruk, 28, admitted that she tried to destroy the $1.2-million IBM computer in a midnight break-in June 2, believing it was part of a NAVSTAR global positioning system she said gave the U.S. the capability of launching a first-strike nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.

Government officials deny the NAVSTAR system has nuclear attack applications and say that, in any case, the computer Komisaruk destroyed had not been part of the NAVSTAR system for the past 18 months.


Rea ruled out most of the debate by preventing the UC Berkeley business school graduate from using international law--prohibiting nations from waging wars of aggression--as a defense. Rea, in fact, ruled out any evidence of Komisaruk’s motives during the two-day jury trial, prompting bitter complaints from Komisaruk.

“I made a coward’s choice during my trial. I pretended that this trial was a fair and just proceeding. . . . I never really stated just how ludicrous this proceeding was,” she asserted.

But Assistant U.S. Atty. Nora Manella, who prosecuted the case, said the court “bent over backward” to assure a fair trial.

“Let’s not pretend that this is a case about muzzling the defendant . . . she knew what her legal rights were, and she rejected them in favor of lawlessness,” Manella said.

“Even if she had been correct in thinking that what she was after was a weapons system, instead of a navigational system, nothing gave her the right to unilaterally dismantle it,” the prosecutor added.

In remarks that drew hisses from the more than 100 supporters who filled the courtroom and the corridor outside, Manella called Komisaruk “a disgrace to the movement she purports to represent,” saying most peace activists are “law-abiding citizens who would not think of destroying government property.”

Weinglass was also critical of a letter sent to the court by Maj. Gen. Donald O. Aldridge, commanding officer of Vandenberg Air Force Base, seeking a stiff sentence as a deterrent factor.

“I don’t mind generals in the White House deciding policy, but I get a chill when I find generals in the courtroom deciding sentencing,” he said.


In imposing the $500,000 restitution requirement--the estimated replacement cost of the computer--Rea said the fine would be assessed in the event that Komisaruk follows through with plans for a screenplay about the incident.

Komisaruk’s lawyers have already announced plans to appeal the conviction, arguing that they should have been permitted to introduce evidence of her motive for the attack.