When FBI agents raided Meredith Aby's house on the morning of Sept. 24, they seized every item related to her political activism for the past 16 years, such as notebooks from meetings, computers, hard drives and fliers.
They also took ordinary things, including every picture she had of her 20-month-old daughter.
"They said they wanted all evidence related to terrorism," Aby says. "They asked if I would help them find it. I said no."
Aby, who lives in Minneapolis, is one of at least 16 anti-war and international peace activists targeted nationwide by the FBI that day. Thirteen of the activists were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury, but the Justice Department withdrew the subpoeanas after all of the activists invoked their right to remain silent. Yet last week, the Justice Department refiled subpoenas on several activists; if they refuse to comply, they could be jailed for contempt of court.
In Durham, the FBI also targeted well-known anti-war activist Kosta Harlan and tried to question him at his home, as reported by the Indy in the Sept. 29 issue. Harlan was not subpoenaed; he told the Indy this week he hasn't heard from the FBI since the day of the raids.
The FBI's actions raise crucial questions about the agency's motives and the potential for civil rights infringements.
"[The FBI] wanted to know how I 'indoctrinate people into anti-war committees,'" Aby recalls. "They wanted to know who I had political relationships with in the U.S., Palestine and Colombia. They wanted to know who I have met to talk politics with. That should be protected legal activity."
The recent targets have two things in common: They all oppose the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and all are openly critical of U.S. foreign policy regarding Colombia and Palestine.
Aby, Harlan and other activists say they traveled to Colombia as part of human rights delegations. There, they met with Colombians about the civil war between the government-backed right-wing paramilitary forces, which have been accused of torturing and murdering insurgents, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist group accused of executions, gunrunning and kidnapping.
The U.S. government, which supports the Colombian regime, considers FARC a terrorist organization, although many Colombians view the group as advocates for the poor.
"We talked to people whose sons joined the paramilitary. We talked to people whose sons had joined FARC. We talked to people who have guns, and the Justice Department is using that as a pretext for investigating us," Aby says. "They don't want people to find out for themselves what the U.S. military is paying for."
That Aby and the other activists spoke with certain Colombians may be at the heart of one of the serious charges looming over them. The Justice Department can, and does, broadly apply charges of "providing material support to terrorists." As the Indy reported in August 2009, material support has been prosecutors' charge of choice in terrorism trials because the thresholds of proof are low.
(Daniel Boyd, a Muslim and one of seven Wake County residents imprisoned on multiple terrorism charges, also allegedly provided material support to terrorists. The trial is scheduled for the fall of 2011.)
That low threshold of proof prompted humanitarian aid groups to argue that some of the material support provisions put them at risk of being prosecuted for talking to terrorist groups about nonviolent activities, according to a Democracy Now! radio broadcast. But a recent Supreme Court decision rejected that free speech challenge to the material support law.
"The fact that I'm being investigated for providing material support is ridiculous. It hasn't happened," says Aby. "If my case is being used to broaden the definition of providing material support, that is a problem for freedom of speech and solidarity work as well."
Duke University Law Professor Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor, says it is unlikely the federal raids are the result of a larger anti-war conspiracy.
"[FBI Director Robert] Mueller is very ethical and the antithesis of the old FBI," Buell says. "I'm not saying there aren't bad apples, but a directive from on high, 'Let's go round up anti-war activists' strikes me as unlikely. Either there's more to the story or it's a bureaucratic imperative that agents show they have been talking to people."
All this speculation is just that—speculation—because the FBI does not comment on its ongoing investigations. FBI spokesperson Amy Thoreson of the FBI's Charlotte Division could not confirm or deny any investigations in North Carolina; the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., did not return calls seeking comment.
"I have no idea why the FBI is doing this. Even if it's not intended as a scare tactic, it results in being one," says Sarah Preston, policy director for the North Carolina chapter of the ACLU. "One of the reasons the ACLU is so in favor of transparency is that we'd like to know why."
Buell says one plausible answer is the immense pressure on the FBI to ferret out potential terrorist plots.
"Agents may be pressed to show investigative activity," Buell says. "If you have no strong leads, then you follow up on weak leads just to show you're making an effort."
Those factually weak leads were central to a September report issued by the Justice Department's inspector general. The report, which reviewed the FBI's activities from 2001 to 2006, faulted the bureau for pursuing tips that were essentially baseless. And in at least one case involving the Merton Center, a social justice center in Pittsburgh, agents attended a 2002 anti-war event for reasons the inspector general found "troubling on its face."
"It created the strong impression that the FBI's reason for being there was to monitor the First Amendment activities of people with anti-war views," the report read.
While the report covers activities under the Bush administration, it also notes that the information is relevant to the Obama administration in that current and prospective FBI investigations may have First Amendment considerations.
That the raids occurred on Obama's watch disturbs Theresa El-Amin of Durham, who thought the political climate would change under a new administration. Earlier this year, she attended a speech by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who, she says, "promised there would be no more trouble like we had in the 1960s and that the Department of Justice would be our friend.
"To have this happening now, it's disappointing," El-Amin adds. "It's the antithesis of what was said that day."
As for Aby, she has not been subpoenaed a second time as part of the FBI investigation into her political activities. But she is concerned about going to jail on contempt charges or on the more serious material support allegation.
"I thought the danger was traveling through a country at war," Aby says. "The danger was coming back to my own country to talk about the war."
See Page 2 for "FBI eyed tenants of Durham apartment complex."