A coalition of well-known journalists, activists and civil libertarians have sued President Obama, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and other members of the U.S. government to push them to remove or rewrite this year’s defense appropriations bill, saying it chills speech by threatening constitutionally protected activities such as news reporting, protest and political organizing in defense of controversial causes such as the Wikileaks case.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was launched by former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges, claim that the new provisions, which went into effect March 1, not only put them at risk of arrest but also allows indefinite detentions of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, and that the provisions are too vague.
Environmentalists have also registered their opposition. In light of many prosecutions of U.S. environmental activists under ramped-up terror laws in the past six years, many fear the new law will be used against them.
“My activities as a civil liberties, democracy advocate and independent journalist definitely leave me under the purview of the vague language of the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act],” says Jennifer “Tangerine” Bolen, one of seven current plaintiffs, along with Hedges, in the suit. A host of live panel discussions with what she calls “activists and revolutionaries” as part of independent media outlet Revolution Truth, Bolen has had ongoing contact with Wikileaks activists in an effort to get information to the public.
“I believe that could leave me in imminent danger of harm,” she says. “There was a global, trans-partisan, outpouring of distress over Obama signing the NDAA into law on Dec. 31, 2011, and I decided I had to do something.”
Plaintiffs include Hedges, Bolen, scholar Noam Chomsky, Icelandic member of parliament Birgitta Jonsdottir and Kai Wargalla, both of Revolution Truth, Alexa O’Brien of U.S. Day of Rage, and “Pentagon Papers” activist Daniel Ellsberg.
The suit demands cutting or reforming a new section in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. Subsection 1021 (b)(2) allows the U.S. military to detain anyone who may have “substantially supported” terrorists or their “associated forces,” without defining what those terms mean, and to detain those individuals indefinitely, without charge, including U.S. citizens. President Obama signed the bill on the last day of the year, Dec 31, 2011, with a signing statement saying the new powers would not be used against U.S. citizens.
In his signing statement, Obama disagrees with the interpretation that this bill gives the executive branch or the military any new powers, saying they are “unnecessary” and only “codifies established authorities.”
Though presidential signing statements do not have the power of law, he goes on to state: “Moreover, I want to clarify that my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens. Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a Nation. My Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law.”
Activists, however, say they are not buying it. Not only is “substantial support” not defined in the language of the act, but activists indicate that the meaning of “terrorism” itself has been stretched. Since9/11, the Dept. of Justice has focused intense scrutiny on Islamic humitarian aid groups, and environmentalists have been subject to terror prosecutions for such acts as arson, posting information on a website and writing chalk slogans on sidewalks. For that reason, Andy Stepanian, an animal rights activist sentenced to three years in federal prison as a terrorist in 2009 in the first use of the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act, is contemplating joining the suit.
“The language just says ‘terrorist,’ and fails to list specifically who the terrorists are, I mean, obviously they state the obvious: Al Qaeda. But then they go to list all these other terror groups. That will become a problem at some point,” says Stepanian.
Stepanian was a part of a group called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, or SHAC, which sought to shut down the company Huntingdon Life Sciences, which conducts product testing on animals. He and six others were convicted on a terror charge for putting information on a website. That information may have later been used by unknown persons to vandalize the homes of executives whose work was deemed to support Huntingdon Life Sciences. The seven defendants were also collectively fined $1,000,001.
“Whether it be the Earth Liberation Front or the Animal Liberation Front, they may try to route them through this system,” Stepanian adds. “And by the way, that’s not that far-fetched: because with what happened to us, and what happened to Daniel McGowan [whose story was told in the Oscar-nominted film, “If A Tree Falls”] and a lot of other people. The work I’m involved with is preemptive on our part to try and create a more hospitable climate for activists 5 years from now.”
Bolen, too, sees her action as proactive.
“I’m a moderate Democrat, I actually volunteered on Obama’s campaign and now I’m suing him,” she says. “It’s time for us to really start to unify and get strategic about reclaiming our civil liberties. The NDAA was really sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It’s just such an egregiously vague and dangerously worded law.”