The FBI investigated multiple environmental movements as cases of domestic ecoterrorism, according to documents obtained by Motherboard. The documents name groups like Greenpeace, Earth First!, and the Earth Liberation Front, and detail actions from scrawling “ELF” into the side of a diesel tank to shooting flares at a nuclear power plant.
Motherboard obtained the documents using a Freedom of Information Act request; in some cases, it took the FBI four years to provide the documents. They pertain primarily to the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, but have new relevance considering that some environmentalists have called for direct action to prevent or reverse the worst effects from climate change. The documents show how the FBI treated direct-action environmental organizations, and show what sorts of things the government considered to be "terrorism."
The FBI provided Motherboard with more than 100 pages of documents about Greenpeace, one of the most famous environmental organizations in the world. Most of these documents are from the 1970s and 1980s; the FBI says that the group should be monitored for causing "civil unrest."
Other write-ups by the FBI alert terrorism-investigating divisions of the federal government about a mock attack on Illinois’s Zion Nuclear Power Plant in 1982 by one Greenpeace chapter. The document states that various videos showing flares being shot towards the plant had been distributed to media, and that the following day, the group had called a press conference to claim responsibility. They stated that they had done it to point out the plant’s vulnerabilities to a real attack.
Soon after that incident, Greenpeace disavowed that chapter of the organization and shut it down.
A spokesperson for Greenpeace denounced the FBI’s investigations into them. “We are not aware of anything from the FBI that labels Greenpeace USA an ecoterrorist organization, which we most certainly are not and never have been,” they said. “Greenpeace USA has a 50-year tradition and track-record of peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience.” They noted that because the documents were 40 years old, they were not representative of the organization today.
Other documents obtained by Motherboard relate to Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front.
Earth First!, which the FBI said was usually considered to be the “most radical” of the environmental movements, discussed bombing some Weyerhauser paper mills—and the cars of the officials who ran the mills—for polluting the Columbia river with dioxin, according to the documents. A person calling themselves the movement’s regional representative wrote an extortion letter to the Secretary of the Interior at the time, claiming that if the wilderness was not left alone, the group would engage in civil disobedience.
The FBI said the movement was a “criminal enterprise,” and filed it under cases of domestic terrorism.
The FBI defines ecoterrorism as “the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons.” Though there were not any instances in the documents we received of criminal actions against people, property damage was very common.
Earth First! cut bolts which were securing the pylons of a ski resort’s chair lift, demanding that the trees be allowed to grow back, one document states. The Earth Liberation Front (or ELF), another movement with no organizational structure, claimed multiple acts of arson, including one $50 million fire in San Diego, which was then the “largest act of environmental sabotage in US history.”
The FBI noted numerous times in the documents that they were not investigating the movements, but rather individuals associated with them. But the public didn’t seem to think so.
A letter protesting the investigation of Earth First! writes, “The Bureau’s gestapo-like planting of covert agents within the Earth First! organization itself is an intolerable destruction of the civil liberties and privacy of the American public. To squelch dissent is to kill democracy.” A second letter reads, “The FBI’s job is to catch criminals—not to harass, intimidate, and arrest legitimate political activists.”
One political activist, Peter Young, agrees.
“That’s the rhetoric they’ve used going back to the 90s when I got involved,” said Young, who associates himself with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). When he was younger, he was arrested for cutting a fence to release mink from a fur farm in Wisconsin, and served two years’ time after being charged with animal enterprise terrorism. “I’ve been called a terrorist since I was 19.”
It was at that age that Young first got involved in animal activism, but he felt that it was lacking and ineffective. So, he started doing direct action on behalf of the ALF—cutting fences to release animals, or stealing equipment from slaughter houses.
Young told Motherboard he would not label himself a terrorist, but that he’s not surprised that the FBI did. He said that, especially post-9/11, the agency had a “mandate” to fight the war on terror harder than before.
“If you don’t have a terrorist to fight, you have to make one up,” he said. “I think it’s very convenient for the FBI to start to expand the definition of terrorism.”
A spokesperson for the Earth First! Journal, which documents the movement’s actions but isn’t directly involved with them, agreed with Young’s idea. They wrote in an email to Motherboard, “The FBI has an extensive history when it comes to labeling activist groups as terrorists and eliminating their leaders to ensure that radical social and ecological change does not threaten the State's power in any way.”
It’s worth noting that, compared to the acts listed in the FBI documents, some of these groups seem a lot more tame. ELF, for example, was investigated for arson—the movement’s website has articles with titles like, “What can you do with the wine you have not finished?”
For Greenpeace, too, direct action is a “last resort,” according to Rolf Skar, a campaign organizer for the group.
“[Direct action] doesn’t come out of nowhere,” said Skar. “If we’re doing our jobs right, we’d rather sit down and talk first.” He added that the organization focuses more on legal battles and petitioning than street-level work.
“Legal tactics can be very effective,” said Young. “If you had the resources of a large group behind you, or you just had a lot of money, or connections, legal means of change can be highly highly effective.”
But he notes that not everyone has those kinds of resources. And if you don’t, but you still want to make a difference, he said, “The most effective thing you can do is pick a target and figure out how you’re going to sabotage it.”