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Activists Organize in Opposition to Project ELF

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Democracy Now! interviews Minneapolis grassroots activists organizing against Project ELF, a U.S. Navy program that beams extremely low frequency waves to Trident submarines in order to give the United States first strike nuclear capability. [includes rush transcript]


  • Mike Miles and Barb Kass, the founders of the Anathoth Community in northern Wisconsin and leading activists on Project ELF.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Last weekend, I got a chance to go out to Minneapolis and spoke with many activists, including several who are organizing against Project ELF, a U.S. Navy project designed to give the U.S. first strike nuclear capability. Mike Miles and Barb Kass had come to our meeting from northern Wisconsin, where they’re the founders of Anathoth Community, which is actually celebrating it’s 10th anniversary. They form the core of the Project ELF resistance. I asked them to tell me first about what the Anathoth Community is.

MIKE MILES: Anathoth Community is a community founded in the tradition of the Catholic Worker. It’s a farming community on 57 acres owned by a land trust. There are three households out there right now. And what we do is we practice sustainable living and active nonviolence.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you call yourselves “Anathoth”?

BARB KASS: We had the idea of building a farm. It was in the early ’80s, and, oh, the Cold War was raging, and it just seemed like a grim time on the planet. And as we looked at our activism and the strong “no” that we said—we were at that time living out in Baltimore and addressed the Pentagon and the White House on a regular basis, but feeling called more to a rural life, looking for balance in our lives, we thought the most hopeful thing we could do in the early ’80s was to buy a farm and plant asparagus that would take seven years before we could harvest it, because—because then maybe we had changed things around.

AMY GOODMAN: And Anathoth comes from the Bible?

MIKE MILES: Yeah, Anathoth comes from the Book of Jeremiah, and it’s where the prophet was born. And according to the Bible, what happened prior to the Babylonian exile is that Jeremiah was instructed to go to Anathoth and buy a field as a sign to the people that there was a future, that they would be coming back. For people in Israel to be taken from their land was the equivalent of the end of the world. So he bought this field as a sign of hope. And we figured that in the early ’80s, being on the brink of the nuclear abyss, the most hopeful thing we could do would be to buy a farm and get into planting white pines and asparagus and all those things that take too long to harvest.

AMY GOODMAN: I first heard about you, actually this weekend in Minneapolis, when I heard about the protests around ELF. I don’t think a lot of people even have ever heard of this. Can you explain what ELF is?

BARB KASS: ELF is—stands for “extremely low frequency.” It is a Navy project. It was started—and actually, people have been opposing it for about 30 years. The Navy wanted originally to bury cables all through northern Wisconsin as a way of sending low frequency communication waves to submerged Trident submarines—or submarines at that time, and it’s turned into the Trident system and the Fast Attack system. Essentially, it’s the granite and the geological makeup in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is why that particular spot was chosen. It’s a conductor, and the waves are able to use the granite, and it bounces off the ionosphere, essentially, and sends very large waves around the world. And those waves send a very slow coded message to submerged submarines and essentially gives them the signal to come up and receive a more sophisticated signal, which would probably mean their launch to impact would be a very short time.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying that this signal, the ELF signal, is actually the trigger for the Trident submarines. It’s a first strike?

MIKE MILES: Correct. The only purpose that ELF serves is to launch first strike nuclear war. The purpose of the whole thing, during the Cold War, was to allow the submarines to be as close as they could to the Soviet coastline and yet remain submerged as deeply as they can be so they couldn’t be detected. The only way they could stay in contact with those deeply submerged submarines was through Project ELF. So they would park Trident submarines around the Soviet Union, have them deep and undetected. They would send a message out, if they ever needed to, from Project ELF, bring them up into conventional radio communications, and that’s when they would get the code to fire. And then the flight-to-impact time of the D-5 missiles is less than 15 minutes, making it the ultimate first strike weapon.

AMY GOODMAN: So what have you done at Project ELF, and where exactly is it?

BARB KASS: It’s north—it’s north of us, which would be about four hours from the Twin Cities, in the Chequamegon National Forest. It’s a very small facility. It’s in the shape of a cross. Everything has been—it is a very curious case of grassroots organizing, from the beginning. People—actually, in 1984, it was won in the courts to—on an environmental impact statement, Project ELF—Federal Judge Barbara Crabb out of Madison actually said, “We don’t think that” — she didn’t believe that the Navy had done a good enough job to say that Project ELF was safe environmentally, and said, “You must shut it down.” And then, three months later in an appeals court in Chicago, it was reinstated. But people throughout Wisconsin have been opposing this, saying it’s dangerous, it’s not needed, because of the extremely low frequency waves.

AMY GOODMAN: Why would extremely low frequency waves be dangerous?

MIKE MILES: That’s controversial, too. It has to do with electromagnetic radiation and the concerns that a lot of people have with electromagnetic fields. It’s the same thing you get anytime you run current through a wire: you get electromagnetic fields. And the big debate about that right now is whether or not it can cause certain kind of cancers. There are a lot of people who feel that—research indicates that if people are located in a prolonged way inside an electromagnetic field, such as at Project ELF, such as by computer terminals, sewing machines, lots of different places, people who work in power lines, that kind of work—when you’re in one of those fields for a long period of time, the theory is that because of the magnetic polarity in these fields, it affects cells. And can cause what? Irregularities in cell division and things.

Over the years, besides the legal cases, besides a lot of grassroots organizing educational-wise, people have been crossing over the lines at Project ELF since 1983. Basically what it involves is going up a short driveway to this transmitter site, which is surrounded by a cyclone fence about two acres in the Chequamegon National Forest, and people have walked up the driveway, they’ve used yarn to weave the entrances closed, they’ve left chalk drawings from Hiroshima ashens all around the facility. Every single kind of creative trespass action imaginable has taken place at Project ELF.

And then there have been somewhere around four or five cases where people have gone in with saws and sawed poles down. The most recent one was two friends, Tom and Donna Howard-Hastings, who call themselves the Laurentian Shield. And on Earth Day in 1995, they cut down three poles, turned themselves in, had an international law defense, including Francis Boyle from the University of Illinois; Bob Aldridge, a former Trident missile design engineer; and Captain James Bush from the Center for Defense Information, a former commander on a missile submarine—and, utilizing those three as expert witnesses, were able to be acquitted on charges of sabotage by demonstrating to the jury that ELF did not serve the national defense, and therefore, when they cut the poles down, they did not sabotage it.

AMY GOODMAN: And when you say “international law defense,” explain what you mean.

MIKE MILES: What I’m talking there is that whole body of law that came out of the post-World War II period, mostly out of the Nuremburg war crimes trials, the Tokyo war crimes trials, the Geneva Accords, that whole body of law that says that it’s against international standards to use weapons of mass indiscriminate destruction, that civilians must be left out of combat, all those kind of things that preclude the use of nuclear weapons, which are utterly indiscriminate.

BARB KASS: The other thing, Tom and Donna argued with the—one of their arguments was that with the information they had on what Project ELF was, it was a reasonable act for them to take saws and cut down poles that disarmed that facility for the time the poles were down. And the jury heard that, that these were normal people, looked at the information, and said it is a reasonable act to turn this off.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m talking to Mike Miles and Barbara Kass. They are the founders of the Anathoth Community in Wisconsin, have participated for a long time, community members there, in fighting—in resisting Project ELF. Isn’t it true there’s another project like ELF?

MIKE MILES: Yes, the other project that was in Wisconsin and also across the entire United States was an Air Force project called GWEN, the Ground Wave Emergency Network. What GWEN was about was, in the event of a full-scale nuclear attack on the United States, the GWEN system would shield it against electromagnetic pulse, so after the country was reduced to nuclear rubble, the GWEN system would turn itself on, and whoever was left could talk to whoever else was left about baseball scores, whatever. And they had built 54 of these towers across the country, were stopped, again, by an environmental impact statement. They stopped construction on the towers for a couple of years while the Air Force addressed that, decided that they had fulfilled the standards of that environmental impact statement, started new construction on towers, one of which was in Medford, Wisconsin, which was two hours from where we live.

ABC National News got in touch with us, wanted to know if there was going to be any kind of demonstrations at the sites. We organized one, went out to the site. The long and short of it is they were there, they filmed it. I was on ABC World News Tonight being shoved in the back of a police car. That film went to Washington to be processed at the same time that Congress was debating whether or not funding would be continued for ELF. People—whether or not funding would be continued for project GWEN. We did a very heavy lobbying campaign with the swing senators and representatives. Two days before the vote took place on the floor at Congress, this piece was shown on ABC World News Tonight, and Congress voted to cut funding for this thing, saving the taxpayers $30 million. So that was a case where active nonviolence actually got a result, and we were kind of floored by the whole thing.

AMY GOODMAN: When was that?

MIKE MILES: That was in 1994.

BARB KASS: I think it was '94. I wanted to say one more thing about Project ELF. The interesting thing is both of our senators have been oppose to Project ELF for many years, have introduced legislation on the floor of the U.S. Senate to cut funding, and then this year only to be compromised in committee. This year, not only did they introduce funding—or, introduce a bill to cut funding, but also in the House there was a bipartisan group contingent from Wisconsin saying, “We really want this out of our state.” So we have most of the congressional backing in our state in a time where most states are saying, “Well, it's fine to cut defense funding, but don’t take it out of our state.” And yet it continues. And it is a puzzlement. Well, one of our editorials in the Eau Claire paper compared Project ELF to Frankie Krueger or the Energizer Bunny, that it just goes and goes and goes and goes. It doesn’t matter how many times it’s, you know, on the floor of the Senate and the House, for some reason the Pentagon still wants it. And I think that the bottom line is that it’s connected to Trident submarines, and that’s a—it’s their ace card right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Your actions are modeled on the community in Baltimore where you came from, the Berrigans’ community?

MIKE MILES: Yeah, Barb and I lived in Baltimore with Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister in the early ’80s. We actually moved into Jonah House a month after the Plowshares Eight took place, which was the first of a number of Plowshares actions where people went into a General Electric facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and used household hammers and their own blood on Mark-12A warheads. So Phil and Liz, yeah, were our introduction to community and resistance. And after spending three years with them, bringing groups to the Pentagon, bringing groups to the White House, doing nonviolent civil resistance actions, mostly in Washington, but up and down the Eastern Seaboard, we moved out to Wisconsin to do the same thing here.

AMY GOODMAN: And Philip Berrigan is currently in jail in Maine after a Plowshares action?

BARB KASS: Correct. And he’s awaiting sentencing.

AMY GOODMAN: Barb Kass and Mike Miles, co-founders of Anathoth Community Farm in Luck, northern Wisconsin. Their phone number is 715-472-8721. That’s 715-472-8721. I got a chance to talk to them last weekend when I visited activists in Minneapolis.

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