Dustup Over Dissent in the Heartland
Spotlight Forces DOJ to Withdraw Grand Jury Subpoenas
by Bill Berkowitz

February 18, 2004

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February in Iowa, like most places across the country, promises little. There's still nearly two months left of winter, and the state flower -- the wild prairie rose -- is months away from its June re-emergence. When the high-profile Democratic caucuses ended weeks ago with a surprise victory for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the national media quickly pulled up stakes and moved on.

Recent developments in Des Moines, however, once again focused the nation's attention back on the Hawkeye state. While it may not have been as big an event as the University of Iowa Hawkeyes vs. the Iowa State Cyclones, the rights of the state's citizens to organize and protest an unpopular war without interference by the government came under fire in the waning days of Iowa's winter.

When students, faculty and concerned community members gathered at an anti-war conference sponsored by the Drake University Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, on the Drake campus in Des Moines on November 15, little did they expect that some would later become subject to a government investigation and recipients of Grand Jury subpoenas more than two months later.

The forum, titled "Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!" held workshops on U.S. foreign policy and the economic roots of terrorism. The next day a small group of protesters gathered outside the Iowa National Guard headquarters in Johnson. About a dozen demonstrators were arrested, including one woman charged with assault. The woman, a librarian at nearby Grinnell College, claims she merely went limp and resisted arrest.

In early February, a federal judge ordered officials at the University turn over records about the forum, a ruling, according to the Washington Post, which may be the first subpoena of its kind in decades. In addition, subpoenas were served by a local sheriff's deputy who works on the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force on four of the activists who attended the forum.

The four activists were Wendy Vasquez, a member of the American Friends Service Committee, who visited Iraq in 2002; Elton Davis and Patti McKee, who were arrested at the Nov. 16 demonstration; and Brian Terrell, who lives and works with his family and friends at Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Farm in Maloy, Iowa.

"This is exactly what people feared would happen," Terrell, who said he had been involved in and sometimes arrested for protests of United States actions related to Honduras, Vieques, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere over many years, told the Associated Press. "The civil liberties of everyone in this country are in danger. How we handle that here in Iowa is very important on how things are going to happen in this country from now on."

Records were also subpoenaed from the Drake University chapter of the National Lawyer's Guild -- an organization whose national office experienced government red-baiting during the McCarthy period. "The subpoena [which sought records identifying the officers of the Drake chapter in November 2003, the current location of any local offices, as well as agendas] has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with intimidating lawful protestors and suppressing First Amendment freedom of expression and association," Heidi Boghosian, Executive Director of the Guild, responded in a Guild Press Release issued February 6.

"In the 1950s our members suffered harm from disclosure of their associational relationship with the Guild. 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 these subpoenas."

The U.S. attorney's office in Des Moines also convinced U.S. District Judge Ronald Longstaff to issue an order prohibiting Drake employees from talking about a subpoena the University received, Randy Gould reported on February 9, in his always informative online newsletter The Oread Daily.

Mark Smith, a lobbyist for the Washington-based American Association of University Professors, told the Associated Press that he was not familiar with any other similar situation where a U.S. university's records were subpoenaed. The case, he pointed out has echoes of the "red squads" of the 1950s and campus clampdowns on Vietnam War protesters.

After several days of refusing to comment, on Monday, February 9, U.S. Attorney Stephen O'Meara finally offered up the "first official details of what the investigation is about," TheIowaChannel.com reported. "O'Meara said reports that the case is being investigated as an 'antiterrorism' matter that involves the United States Patriot Act are 'not accurate.'"

"The narrow purpose and scope of that inquiry is to determine whether there were any violations of federal law, or prior agreements to violate federal law, regarding unlawful entry into military property -- and specifically to include whether there were any violations as a result of an attempt to enter within the fenced, secure perimeter at Camp Dodge," O'Meara said in a statement.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin indicated his dismay by demanding more information on the case from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. "I want to know what is going on. I want to know what is happening here and why these subpoenas are being issued," Harkin said, prior to release of the statement from the U.S. attorney in Des Moines.

The four anti-war activists were set to appear before a Grand Jury in short order, when they received word that the subpoenas had been withdrawn by the Justice Department.

Brian Terrell, told a crowd of about 100 cheering people outside the federal courthouse: "We made them want to stop, and we have to make sure they never want to do this again."

"If it was just a trespassing investigation, why seek the membership records of the National Lawyers Guild?" asked Ben Stone, executive director of the ICLU. "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."

However, Al Overbaugh, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office told the AP that the investigation was not over, but he refused to comment any further.

Ten of the more than 530 servicemen and women killed as a result of President Bush's March 2003 invasion of Iraq were from Iowa. Several thousand Iowa National Guard troops are stationed in the Persian Gulf.

The Iowa state flag, which was officially adopted in 1921, seventy-five years after statehood, consists of three vertical stripes -- blue, white and red. According to Iowa Facts and Fun, "the blue stands for loyalty, justice and truth; the white for purity; and the red for courage." Ironically, on the white center stripe is an eagle carrying in its beak blue streamers inscribed with the state motto: "Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain." In light of the Bush Adnministration's assault on dissent, to maintain these rights will be an ongoing struggle.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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