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Activists Cry Foul over FBI Probe

July 25, 2011

BY PETER WALLSTEN, washingtonpost.com

CHICAGO: FBI agents took box after box of address books, family calendars, artwork and personal letters in their 10-hour raid in September of the century-old house shared by Stephanie Weiner and her husband.

The agents seemed keenly interested in Weiner’s home-based business, the Revolutionary Lemonade Stand, which sells silkscreened infant bodysuits and other clothes with socialist slogans, phrases like “Help Wanted: Revolutionaries.”

The search was part of a mysterious, ongoing nationwide terrorism investigation with an unusual target: prominent peace activists and politically active labor organizers.

The probe—involving subpoenas to 23 people and raids of seven homes last fall—has triggered a high-powered protest against the Department of Justice and, in the process, could create some political discomfort for President Obama with his union supporters as he gears up for his reelection campaign.

The apparent targets are concentrated in the Midwest, including Chicagoans who crossed paths with Obama when he was a young state senator and some who have been active in labor unions that supported his political rise.

Investigators, according to search warrants, documents and interviews, are examining possible “material support” for Colombian and Palestinian groups designated by the U.S. government as terrorists.

The apparent targets, all vocal and visible critics of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South America, deny any ties to terrorism. They say the government, using its post-9/11 focus on terrorism as a pretext, is targeting them for their political views.

They are “public non-violent activists with long, distinguished careers in public service, including teachers, union organizers and antiwar and community leaders,” said Michael Deutsch, a Chicago lawyer and part of a legal team defending those who believe they are being targeted by the investigation.

Several activists and their lawyers said they believe indictments could come anytime, so they have turned their organizing skills toward a counteroffensive, decrying the inquiry as a threat to their First Amendment rights.

Those who have been subpoenaed, most of them non-Muslim, include clerical workers, educators and in one case a stay-at-home dad. Some are lesbian couples with young children—a point apparently noted by investigators, who infiltrated the activists’ circle with an undercover officer presenting herself as a lesbian mother.

All 23 of the activists invoked their right not to testify before a grand jury, defying U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, whose office is spearheading the investigation…

The activists have formed the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, organized phone banks to flood Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s office and the White House with protest calls, solicited letters from labor unions and faith-based groups and sent delegations to Capitol Hill to gin up support from lawmakers.

Labor backers include local and statewide affiliates representing the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, two of the most influential unions in the liberal movement. So far, nine members of Congress have written letters to the administration asking questions.

The major national labor organizations have not gotten involved in the case and are considered likely to support Obama’s reelection next year.

But some state and local union organizations are expressing alarm about the case, saying that the government appears to be scrutinizing efforts by workers to build ties with trade unionists in other countries.

“I am so disgusted when I see that so many union people have been targeted in this,” said Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800, which represents clerical workers at the University of Minnesota, including four members who are possible targets.

The union’s statewide group, which says it represents 46,000 workers, called on Obama to investigate and passed a resolution expressing “grave concern” about the raids. Similar resolutions have been approved by statewide AFSCME and SEIU affiliates in Illinois.

If there are indictments, the case could test a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that found the ban on material support for designated foreign terrorist groups does not necessarily violate the First Amendment ¬ even if the aid was intended for peaceful or humanitarian uses. The ruling held that any type of support could ultimately help a terrorist group’s pursuit of violence.

The probe appears to date from 2008, as a number of activists began planning for massive antiwar demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul…

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