Civil liberties groups Tuesday hailed the withdrawal of subpoenas issued last week to four peace activists by federal prosecutors in Des Moines, Iowa as a significant victory, but insisted that the government must explain why they were issued in the first place.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in particular, wanted to know why the Justice Department had undertaken such an apparently sweeping investigation of a recent seminar sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) at Drake University.
“In the two years since 9/11, we have heard one refrain from the Justice Department every time the executive branch seeks to arrogate more power to itself: ‘trust us, we’re the government,'” said Benjamin Stone, executive director of the Iowa ACLU. “But if it is going to be issuing secretive, slapdash subpoenas and then rescinding them to save face, how can we trust that more expansive surveillance and investigative powers will be used properly?”
The group questioned whether the aborted investigation was designed to frighten antiwar activists in Iowa and the rest of the nation and discourage them from taking part in public protests or demonstrations.
An initial subpoena was issued by the FBI ‘s Joint Terrorism Task Force last Wednesday to Drake University, demanding that it turn over all records relating to the November 15 seminar, as well as information about leaders of the NLG’s Drake University chapter, the location of NLG’s local offices, its membership rolls, and any annual reports issued since 2002.
It also requested “all records of Drake University campus security reflecting any observations made of the November 15, 2003 meeting, including any records of persons in charge or control of the meeting, and any records of attendees…”
Three other subpoenas were issued to the former director of the Iowa Peace Network and members of the Catholic Peace Ministries who had played a role at the November 15 seminar.
The following day, the investigation expanded as prosecutors subpoenaed a fourth activist to appear before a grand jury, while, at the request of the Task Force, U.S. District Judge Ronald Longstaff issued a sealed order that reportedly prohibited Drake University employees from commenting on its subpoena. The subpoenas were delivered by a country deputy sheriff attached to the FBI-Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The November forum, entitled “Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!” consisted primarily of training in nonviolent civil disobedience and was reportedly attended by only 21 people. It was open to the public and even reported by the organizers in advance to the local police department in the event that officers wished to attend.
The following day, some of those who took part traveled to an Iowa National Guard base in a nearby town, where they staged a demonstration in which 12 people were arrested on trespass charges. Citing “federal authorities,” the New York Times reported Tuesday that one of the group tried to scale the fence at the base, although the organizers said they did not see such an event.
Prosecutors maintained silence after the subpoenas were issued last week. But, in the face of growing public protest and consternation and moves by both the University and the Lawyer’s Guild to challenge the subpoenas in court, they appeared to back away from the investigation this week.
On Monday, they issued a statement insisting that the investigation was limited to the alleged fence-climbing incident and whether participants at the Nov. 15 training session had conspired to break the law. They also insisted that the case was not related to the USA Patriot Act or any “anti-terrorism” investigation.
They also announced that the grand jury appearances of those subpoenaed had been delayed by a month, while the FBI said the individual who had delivered the subpoenas may have improperly identified himself as representing the Joint Task Force.
On Tuesday, all subpoenas were withdrawn.
While activists welcomed these developments, they said they remained puzzled and concerned about the case and what the government was pursuing.
“Despite any retreat by the Iowa US Attorney,” said Stone, “there remain serious questions about the scope of this particular investigation. If it was just a trespassing investigation, why seek the membership records of the National Lawyers Guild? If this was an attempt to chill protests through the aggressive policing of a run-of-the-mill crime, we’ve got a serious problem in America.”
Iowa Senator Tom Harkin also expressed concern. In a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft Tuesday, he called for prosecutors to “be particularly vigilant about using extraordinary steps in cases when such a treasured American value as free speech is at stake.”
“When law-enforcement measures are disproportionate to the activities they target, or when they appear to target activities that are legitimate expressions of dissent, then those law-enforcement measures have a chilling effect. They stifle liberty instead of protecting it,” he noted.
The NLG also recalled that it had been targeted during the McCarthy period, of which the week’s events were an uncomfortable reminder. “In the 1950s, our members suffered harm from disclosure of their associational relationship with the Guild,” said Heidi Boghosian, the NLG’s national director. “The Guild is in the business of fighting illegal government activity, and we will fight to protect our membership information. We will also work to support and defend the rights of the other activists targeted by the subpoenas.”