Helen Yost of Moscow, Idaho received a text message in October from someone who identified himself as an FBI agent, asking to speak with her. Yost co-founded Wild Idaho Rising Tide, a climate action group. In July 2013 Rising Tide’s Portland chapter hung a banner that read “Coal, oil, gas, none shall pass” from the Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River. (Photo: Adam Elliot/Portland Rising Tide; Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In October 2014, the FBI began contacting at least a dozen people who had been involved in protests against fracking and tar sands oil development, including the Keystone XL pipeline.. Host Steve Curwood speaks with reporter Becky Kramer and attorney Larry Hildes about the FBI’s investigation and the history of surveillance against political activists.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Ever since the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil to Gulf coast refineries was first proposed in 2008, it’s faced strong opposition, including acts of civil disobedience. During recent months some activists have received visits from FBI agents keen to ask them questions.
Becky Kramer, a staff reporter with The Spokesman-Review, based in Spokane, Washington was among the first to publish this story back in January, and joins me now from her office in western Idaho. Welcome to Living on Earth.
KRAMER: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Now your article on January 23 opens with a description of an Idaho woman who is receiving a text message from an FBI agent. What happened?
KRAMER: This woman, Helen Yost, lives in Moscow, Idaho, and she's a cofounder of a group called Wild Idaho Rising Tide. The group has been involved in protests against oversized oilfield equipment moving through the region, through the northwest, to Alberta's tar sands, and she received a text message from an FBI agent in December saying that he needed to speak with her and asked her to give him a call.
CURWOOD: So what did she say happened next?
KRAMER: She said that on the advice of her attorney, she declined to talk to the agent.
CURWOOD: Now, what has she done and what has her organization done in terms of activism? I understand at times they've been arrested?
KRAMER: Some people were arrested for being on the road when the oil equipment was moving through. Helen was not arrested for being in the road; she was fined $243 for disturbing the peace after she threw a protest sign at the back of a mega load shipment that was moving through.
CURWOOD: Talk to me about the other person who was contacted by the FBI. What was the story you heard from that person?
KRAMER: Well, I also spoke with Herb Goodwin. He's a 65-year-old activist from Bellingham, Washington, and he said that he was contacted by the FBI in October. He said a city police officer and a woman who identified herself as an FBI agent came to his door. They asked him if he would answer questions about a group called Deep Green Resistance and he said he declined.
CURWOOD: And Herb Goodwin was also involved with these protests?
KRAMER: Yes, he came over to protest the mega loads moving through Idaho and he has also been involved in protests against coal trains in his hometown of Bellingham.
CURWOOD: When you spoke with the activists for the purpose of writing a story, or perhaps later on when you got comments, what, if any of them said that they felt a chilling effect on their activism by these inquiries from the FBI?
KRAMER: Well when I talked with Herb Goodwin, and he said, and I'll quote him directly, "It's actually pretty spooky to have the FBI show up at your door, ask one question and leave”. And he said “I think they were there to put me on notice that I was being watched."
That’s journalist Becky Kramer of Spokane’s The Statesman-Review. Well, after his inquiry from the FBI, Herb Goodwin sought legal advice from Larry Hildes, an attorney in Bellingham, Washington, who’s well known for his work with civil disobedience cases. And soon after he began working with Herb Goodwin, Mr. Hildes says that other environmental activists began to contact him with similar stories.
HILDES: Herb put out our contact information to Deep Green Resistance and to some other groups and the calls started to flood in, and this was early October of 2014. We got calls from a dozen people over the course of October, November, some of whom had multiple contacts by the FBI. All over Washington, Oregon, Idaho, northern California, Nevada, a couple from Colorado and apparently as far east as Pennsylvania. That continued through December and into early January when the first media started to come out bringing this to public light, and that as far as we know is when the FBI harassment stopped.
CURWOOD: I understand that some of the people who called you, at least one of them, had the FBI show up at their place of work. Can you tell me that story please?
HILDES: Sure. A woman who lives outside of Portland had two visits at her workplace from the FBI. They both were timed for exactly when her boss was out and she was alone in the office. And the first time they refused to leave until she set a time and place to talk to them. She was afraid if her boss came back and saw this she would lose her job, so she gave them a time and place and then canceled. So they came back and sat down and said we're not leaving until you talk to us and answer all our questions, and at that point she gave them my name and number, and they said to her, "We don't want to talk to your lawyer. Your lawyer doesn't have the information we want. You do." So she invoked her right to counsel, and they made clear they weren't going to follow the Constitution. That they were going talk to her anyway, and she was afraid at that point for her job and for her safety and so she talked to them for a while.
CURWOOD: What kind of information were they looking for?
HILDES: They wanted information on her environmental activities and other political activities. They asked about people, some of them she knew, some of whom she didn't know, and they told her that she was not a suspect; this was not a criminal investigation. But each time they've insisted there is no criminal investigation, your client is not a subject of a criminal investigation, we're just trying to gather information for our own education. That's funny because the FBI in their public statements and their policies insist that they only do criminal investigations. If they call someone, it's because that person is either a witness or subject of a criminal investigation. So the question is kind of when are they telling the truth and when aren't they.
CURWOOD: Now, in the Pacific Northwest in the past there have been some violent incidents, some SUVs were burned at a dealership in Portland and other activities that people sometimes term eco-terrorism. To what extent to think the FBI is looking into something like that?
HILDES: Well, first of all none of the folks that they have talked to or tried to talk to have any history of violence. None of them have advocated violence, none of them have engaged in or advocated property destruction. And they caught the people who did those acts, and those people went to prison. And none of these folks have anything to do with those folks, and if you look at what the FBI has done in general against the left and in specific against the environmental movement since the 80's, most of their contacts, their harassment, their actions, have been against people who were not engaged in any violence or property distraction.
CURWOOD: So what's the motivation of the FBI in looking into the environmental activists there in the Pacific Northwest?
HILDES: They keep telling me there's no criminal investigation, so if they're not investigating crime, they're not investigating potential crime, the only thing that's left to conclude is that they're trying to intimidate and silence these movements. We're at a point where the environmental movement is heating up, the movement to stop climate change is gaining a lot of momentum and historically those are the points where the FBI has intervened and disrupted movements, intimidated people. The Keystone XL controversy is coming to a fore right now. If for some reason President Obama were not to veto the pipeline, people have said all over the country that they're going to engage in civil disobedience and demonstrations, not property destruction, not violence, but peaceful protest, and I can only conclude from what's going on that this is an attempt to silence folks before that happens. Almost all of the folks who have been contacted are involved in some way with protests against the Keystone XL pipeline and the tar sands and movements related to those.
CURWOOD: Now, the FBI famously wiretapped Martin Luther King, and it was involved in extensive surveillance in the civil rights movement, also the anti-Vietnam war movement, but they apologized for that. They asked for forgiveness and said that that was in the past.
HILDES: There's no reason to think that it ever stopped. When I was in college in the early-to-mid 80s, the FBI got caught spying on and harassing the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) which never committed anything remotely involving violence or property destruction, but peacefully advocated for change in Latin America and change in US policy towards dictatorships in Latin America, and they did all the same stuff. They harassed, they showed up at people's doors, they tapped people's phones, and again they apologized, they said it would not happen again, and it has continued through every director of the FBI since then, and this is a point where those movements are stepping up and the FBI's historical response to dissent on the left and to activities is to try and stop it by intimidation and by force.
CURWOOD: Larry Hildes is an attorney in Bellingham, Washington. Thank you so much, Larry, for taking time with us today.
HILDES: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: We contacted the FBI, and a spokeswoman replied and I quote, “The FBI’s media policy prohibits discussing ongoing investigations—or even the existence or absence of an investigation—except under rare circumstances.” She also wrote that “the FBI takes care to distinguish between constitutionally protected activities and illegal activities undertaken to further an ideological agenda.” The full statement is on our website, LOE.org.
Email exchange of Living on Earth producer Naomi Arenberg wth Ayn Sandalo Dietrich-Williams, Media Coordinator, FBI Seattle Division February 12, 2015
1. In light of several reports on FBI agents visiting so-called "environmental activists" in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, is there anything in general you could say about those visits?
2. What information is the Bureau seeking from these individuals?
3. Is the Bureau monitoring activities related to the tar sands? If so, then why?
4. Is the Bureau conducting an investigation into apparent tar sands related events, especially those of civil disobedience?
5. Do you know of environmental activists outside of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho who have been contacted by the FBI?
6. Has the Bureau received any information from those who've been contacted? If so, then what?
Living on Earth
The FBI has a very restrictive media policy, so I apologize that my answers will not provide the details you’re hoping to receive. I’m copying my counterparts in the Portland and Salt Lake City offices, as they handle inquiries related to Oregon and Idaho, respectively. I’m confident my comments also apply to their areas, though.
In response to your first question, I can only point out that on any given day, FBI employees are outsomewhere conducting routine activities. These could be activities related to community outreach, emergency response, or investigations. Our contacting a person does not mean that the person is the subject of an investigation.
I also want to be clear that the FBI takes care to distinguish between Constitutionally protected activities and illegal activities undertaken to further an ideological agenda. The FBI has the authority to conduct an investigation when it has reasonable grounds to believe that an individual has engaged in criminal activity or is planning to do so. This authority is based on the illegal activity, not on the individual’s political views, position, or any other beliefs.
This information speaks to your questions #2, 5, and 7. Regarding questions #3 and 4, the FBI’s media policy prohibits discussing ongoing investigations—or even the existence or absence of an investigation—except under rare circumstances.
I hope even this general information can be helpful in some way.
Follow up Query :
I do have one further question. All of us at Living on Earth are concerned about so-called "eco terrorism" and are aware of the car burning incidents that took place in Oregon a few years ago. Is it possible for you to tell us whether the Bureau is looking into the possibility of further terrorist acts?
I appreciate your time and effort.
Thanks, Naomi, for your concern and thoughtful communication. I truly appreciate your view of wanting to ensure people express their opinions in a safe and constructive way.
Unfortunately, I can’t share publicly, information about any threats or criminal planning that we investigate. The FBI’s media policy prohibits discussing ongoing investigations—or even the existence or absence of an investigation—except under rare circumstances. All I can do is reassure you that when we receive credible threat reporting, we always coordinate with appropriate partners, whether those be in government or the private sector. So if an entity or person were being threatened, we’d reach out to ensure they are aware of the situation and can take precautions to protect themselves.
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