National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  February 20, 2004

Federal subpoenas seen as targeting dissent

Des Moines, Iowa

A federal grand jury, in a move some see as an attempt to harass and intimidate the antiwar movement, subpoenaed Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, in early February, ordering it to turn over all documents related to an antiwar conference held three months ago on its campus.

Also subpoenaed were Brian Terrell, Elton Davis, Patti McKee and Wendy Vasquez, four Des Moines peace activists who participated in the daylong conference and a demonstration the following day.

A Polk County Sheriff’s deputy attached to the local FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force served the subpoenas, fueling ongoing speculation on the nature and purpose of the investigation. The mystery deepened when the U.S. attorney withdrew the subpoenas Feb. 10, just one week after they had been issued, and offered no explanation.

The same day, a federal judge lifted a gag order that had been imposed on the university, ordering officials not to discuss the inquiry into the antiwar conference.

“I’m concerned,” said Michael Avery, president of the National Lawyers Guild, “that if we see this type of activity, people will become more afraid to join organizations that are perceived as activist or involved in dissent or protest.

“I think the current administration in Washington has made clear in a variety of ways that it’s trying to criminalize and demonize people who dissent from their policies,” Avery said.

Many in the peace movement claimed victory with the government’s hasty retreat, crediting public pressure and unfavorable media coverage. “We made them not want to do this,” Terrell, executive director of Catholic Peace Ministry, told supporters at a rally in front of the federal building in Des Moines after hearing that the subpoenas were withdrawn. “We’ve got to make sure they don’t want to do it again.”

Others, however, are still asking questions and demanding answers. “There needs to be an explanation of what started this investigation and assurances that it is over,” said National Lawyers Guild attorney Bruce Nestor.

Peace activists say there was nothing unusual about the activities that occurred on the Drake campus the weekend of Nov. 15 and 16. The Drake University chapter of the National Lawyers Guild agreed to sponsor a conference held by local peace activists to discuss Iraq, and the chapter reserved several rooms in the student union building.

The conference — called “Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home” — was on a Saturday. People attended workshops on Iraq, the roots of terrorism, and how to talk about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. After lunch, about two dozen attended a nonviolence training and direct-action planning for those interested in committing civil disobedience at the Iowa National Guard Armory on Sunday. There would be a legal demonstration as well.

“We did the typical stuff,” said Terrell, who helped oversee the nonviolence training with Iowa Peace Network director Patti McKee. “We had a talk about the philosophy of nonviolence, you know, King, Gandhi and Dorothy Day. We had the usual guidelines: treat everyone with respect. No alcohol or weapons. No quick moves. Don’t return even verbal violence — the usual stuff.” The session was taped by a camera crew from a local TV station.

The next day around 70 peace activists showed up at the Iowa National Guard headquarters in nearby Johnston.

“We’ve been there before,” Terrell said. “Usually it’s been very friendly with a low-key and low-risk civil disobedience kind of thing.” But this time a small army was waiting for the protesters. “They had full riot gear, Kevlar vests, four foot batons and face shields,” he said.

A road separated the demonstration from the armory. And when the group planning civil disobedience prepared to cross the road they were arrested immediately. They were taken to jail, court dates were set, and then everybody went home.

On Feb. 3, Terrell was served a subpoena at the offices of Catholic Peace Ministry ordering him to appear before a federal grand jury in exactly one week. The detective serving the subpoena handed Terrell a business card: Detective Jeff Warford, FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Some questioned why a sheriff’s deputy would be delivering federal subpoenas. Al Overbaugh, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Des Moines, told NCR, “A Polk County deputy is still a Polk County deputy whether he’s attached and working part-time for the Joint Terrorism Task Force or he isn’t.”

The subpoena was vague, revealing little more than the fact that there was an investigation into a possible violation of federal law and he was wanted on the witness stand. “It could have been anything,” Terrell said. “We’re pretty busy. There are a lot of things they might have wanted to know about.”

By the end of the day Davis of the Des Moines Catholic Worker house and McKee had each received similarly vague subpoenas.

Then news of another subpoena came — targeting Drake University. The Drake subpoena demanded all documents related to the student chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

Terrell, McKee, Davis, and Vasquez, who received her subpoena two days after the others, all attended the conference. Davis and Vasquez were among those arrested at the demonstration.

Randall Wilson, representing Vasquez, said he was alarmed by grand jury involvement in the investigation. “There are almost no restrictions as to what a grand jury can look into or how long or how hard. It can be used repressively. We would hope that’s not happening here.”

Avery said such a move has troubling roots. “In southern states during the ’60s, officials tried to get membership lists from the NAACP and other civil rights organizations,” he said.

Nestor, who filed a motion to quash the Drake subpoena, said, “The grand jury, particularly under the Nixon administration, was widely used to investigate political activity that is protected under the Constitution of the United States. We have not seen that use of the grand jury recently.”

He described the Drake subpoena as “a broad request for any records that the university has regarding the antiwar conference,” including “the name of the individual who reserved the room, the names of all people who attended the conference, any meeting agendas or reports filed by the National Lawyers Guild student chapter and other documents that the university has pertaining to the National Lawyers Guild.”

“What we see so far causes us great concern that this is designed to harass and intimidate the antiwar movement,” Nestor said.

The U.S. attorney’s office refused to comment on the investigation until Feb. 9, when the U.S. attorney in Des Moines, Stephen O’Meara, issued a statement saying the investigation did not involve terrorism, but trespassing at the Iowa National Guard headquarters. “The United States Attorney’s Office does not prosecute persons peacefully and lawfully engaged in assemblies, which are conducted under the protection of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,” the statement said.

The investigation, it said, had “narrowed to determine whether there were any violations of federal law” at the Iowa National Guard headquarters or if there were “prior agreements to violate federal law.”

The statement did little to assuage those most disturbed by the nature of the investigation.

“If their claim is this was a narrow investigation of criminal trespass,” Nestor asked, “why were they seeking records of the state chapter of National Lawyers Guild dating back to January 2002? If that is the understanding of the U.S. attorney about a proper use of the grand jury, that’s extraordinarily frightening.

“Absent some strong showing that there really was some relation there,” he said, “that’s using the government and law enforcement to investigate protected political activity.”

After the gag order was lifted, Drake University president David Maxwell said he was troubled by the investigation into the November conference. “Of all places, we are a safe haven for ideas, and particularly for unpopular ideas,” he said.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin joined the chorus against the U.S. attorney’s moves when he sent off a letter, the day the activists were to appear in court, to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

“I hope the steps taken in this case are an effort to protect citizens and security, not to silence legitimate voices calling for peace,” Harkin wrote. “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.”

Jeff Guntzel is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 2004

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