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Philip Berrigan and Plowshares Activists Imprisoned

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On December 19, Philip Berrigan and a group of activists calling themselves Plowshares vs. Depleted Uranium (Susan Crane of Baltimore’s Jonah House, the Rev. Stephen Kelley from New York City, and Elizabeth Walz, a Catholic worker from Philadelphia) disarmed two A-10 Warthog (Fairchild Thunderbolt II) aircraft. The aircraft were located at the Maryland National Guard base in Middle River, Maryland. The activists hammered and poured blood on A-10s, because the Warthog, used against Iraq and Yugoslavia, has a gun which fires depleted uranium ammunition. [includes rush transcript]

The four activists appeared in court recently and now face three charges, including malicious destruction of property, conspiracy to maliciously destroy property and trespassing. Philip Berrigan faces a sentence of thirty months. The others face slightly lesser sentences.


  • Liz McAlister, wife of Phil Berrigan. Email: Jonah House Call: 410.433.6238.
  • Rosalie Bertell, Epidemiologist and expert on depleted uranium. She is President of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health, and editor-in-chief of International Perspectives in Public Health. She has testified before Congress on health issues.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ve been talking about this case since it happened on December 19, 1999, when four people, Philip Berrigan, Susan Crane, Reverend Steve Kelly and Elizabeth Walz, calling themselves the “Plowshares vs. Depleted Uranium,” went to the Maryland Warfield Air National Guard Base to convert the A-10, they said, in obedience to God’s prohibition against killing and to embody Isaiah’s vision of a disarmed world where hearts are converted to passion.

They went and they hammered on and threw their own blood on the A-10 Thunderbolt bombers, known as Warthogs, on the early morning of that winter’s day. They hammered on the Gatling gun and the nose of the planes and on the pylons under the wings and poured their blood into the engines of the plane, and they hung their banners, “Plowshares vs. Depleted Uranium” on the site.

Since that time, the US military has admitted that 31,000 rounds of depleted uranium were shot into Yugoslavia during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

We’re joined right now by Liz McAlister, who is a well-known Plowshares activist, lives at Jonah House in Baltimore and is also the wife of Philip Berrigan, one of the people who was just convicted and sentenced for the Plowshares action. And we’re also joined by Rosalie Bertell who recently wrote a letter to the judge. And Rosalie Bertell is a leading Canadian scientist on the issue of depleted uranium, not allowed to speak at the trial, but speaking out nonetheless.

And we welcome you both to Democracy Now!

LIZ McALISTER: Thank you. Good morning, Amy. Good morning, Rosalie.


Good morning.


It’s nice to have you both with us. First of all, let’s start with an update, Liz McAlister. When were the four Plowshares activists sentenced?

LIZ McALISTER: They were sentenced on Thursday; that would be the 23rd of March. And the sentencing followed immediately upon the conviction. They were convicted of destruction of property — malicious destruction of property and conspiracy to maliciously destroy property. The charge of trespass was dropped after the government’s case. Charges of sabotage and conspiracy to commit sabotage were dropped a week before the trial began. And Susan had the additional charge of assault, and the jury could not reach a verdict on that, and that was dropped. That was dismissed.

Philip was given twenty-seven months. Susan and Steve were — no, Philip was given thirty months. Susan and Steve, twenty-seven months, and Liz Walz, eighteen months. In addition, they are together required to pay $88,622.11 in restitution. That was the sentence handed down.


Were you surprised by the judge’s sentence? Also, the fact that — wasn’t it more than the prosecution asked for?

LIZ McALISTER: The prosecution asked for nothing to a month for Liz Walz, two months to nine months for Steve and Susan, and six to twelve months for Philip. And the judge totally ignored it and handed down this sentence that I just shared.


Was there no jury?

LIZ McALISTER: The jury had nothing to do with sentencing.


And why did the judge say he went so far beyond what even the prosecution asked for?

LIZ McALISTER: He attributed it to the damages and thus the restitution, as well.


What is your response, Liz McAlister, to damaging these Warthog planes?

LIZ McALISTER: I wish that we could get rid of all of them. I wish we could make every last one of them unusable. But I think that’s a mind and heart thing. It’s not a physical thing. And I think that the Plowshares, in acting against those weapons, were trying as much, if — as much, if not more than, to change hearts and minds than they were to physically damage the planes. The damage is symbolic at best.


Rosalie Bertell, you’re a scientist who’s long dealt with the issue of radiation and depleted uranium. And the defendants had hoped that you could testify at their trial. But the judge said that you couldn’t. Can you talk about your concerns? And also, I don’t know if you have the letter that you wrote to Judge James Smith of the Circuit Court for Baltimore County in Towson, Maryland, but if you could read it to us.


Yeah, I don’t have it in my hands right now, but I think your listeners should understand that when we talk about using depleted uranium as weapons, we’re basically saying that the US is throwing its radioactive waste at its enemies. To me, it was astonishing when I discovered that they were even trying to do such a thing. This is the largest category of radioactive waste that exists in the US for both the weapons and the nuclear reactor programs. It requires a license to handle it. It’s got to be isolated against, away from the biosphere forever, and, you know, to just use this as a weapon and then leave it all over the environment in a so-called enemy country is unconscionable.


What first got you interested in radiation and radioactive weapons? Can you talk about your expertise? I mean, you are involved with the institute, the International Institute of Concern for Public Health in Toronto, but can you explain your background?


Well, actually, it was thirty years ago that I started to work on a major project, which was looking at the health effects of medial diagnostic x-rays. And I managed to publish on this and to uncover a subtle aging process which happens when we’re exposed to these x-rays. Then I found out that nuclear power plants, ordinary reactors, were routinely emitting radiation and telling people it was just like a few x-rays which your doctor gave you. I became interested in the whole nuclear issue, and I wondered where these regulations came from that said it was OK to expose people. And that was how I discovered the whole military establishment, since it was the military that set our radiation — so-called radiation protection standards, because they wanted to make nuclear bombs and use them. So the whole — it’s like a whole house of cards, and when you start looking at it, it’s pretty corrupt right from the basis.


I’m looking at the letter you wrote to the judge, where you said, Rosalie Bertell, “You must be somewhat disturbed over the trial of Philip Berrigan, Susan Crane, Stephen Kelly and Elizabeth Walz. Your sentencing was so excessively vindictive, I would guess that the action of these men and women deeply challenged your faith and belief that Catholic doctrine supported US military activity, regardless of the judgment of the Church’s more prophetic members.” You go on to say, “By eliminating expert witnesses in this case, you eliminated my testimony. I’m a Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart Motherhouse in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and also president of the North American Association of Contemplative Sisters. I’m also an epidemiologist with thirty years experience with communities exposed to uranium mining and milling and related polluting activities.”

And you said that you’ve been working for the last three years with the veterans of the Gulf War who are seriously ill, also many exposed to depleted uranium, though the Pentagon is disputing whether that’s the cause of their illnesses, Doctor and Sister Rosalie Bertell.


Yes, I think — I was deeply disturbed that when the US Congress raised money and allocated it to study the depleted uranium effect on Gulf War veterans, the Pentagon used that money to hire the Rand Corporation to do a search of the literature and produce a book. Well, they should have looked at the veterans. When we actually looked at the veterans and did clinical studies, especially urine analysis, we found the depleted uranium in the urine of these veterans nine years after they were exposed, which means all of that time it was in their lungs and traveling around their bodies. So I just wish, you know, that we had the money that they used to produce their book to actually deal with the question.


You say to the judge, “In your better moments, you must find that shooting radioactive waste at one’s enemy is outrageous behavior. How much more outrageous is it to undermine the health of one’s own military personnel and the women and children of the land which you’ve polluted?” You say, “There’s no war theory which condones indiscriminate poison. By the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations, depleted uranium can be handled only by licensed and trained personnel, and all releases to the environment must be cleaned up. It’s legally recognized as a poison.” So how is it shot out of the Gatling guns of these A-10 Warthogs?


Well, they use the depleted uranium to replace tungsten and lead in the construction of missiles and bullets. This uranium waste, when it hits a hardened target, there’s a flash of like a fire that occurs from that impact, and this reaches very high temperatures, something like 5,000 degrees centigrade. When it does, it releases the material as a ceramic. You know what happens when you take a pottery and put it into an oven, it comes out glass? Well that’s what happens to the uranium. You produce an aerosol of radioactive glass, very small particles. And this is what the people were breathing. It travels quite a distance. It can go forty, fifty kilometers from the impact point. And also, even when it finally settles on the ground, if you walk over the ground or stir it up with wind, it can re-suspend and people can breathe it, even, you know, well after the event. So we’re dealing here with a very serious hazard to humans and animals.


You ended your letter to the judge, Judge James T. Smith, appealing to him as a Catholic judge and saying, “I’ll pray that you find a way quickly to redress the wrong which you’ve done and reduce the sentences of the Plowshares activists. Silencing the messengers and prophets has long been the pattern of behavior of false leaders. Do not continue on this wrong path.” Let me ask Liz McAlister, is there any chance that the sentences can be reduced?

LIZ McALISTER: There’s always a chance. I’m not expecting it.


Where are each of the four Plowshares activists now, as they begin to serve their sentences?

LIZ McALISTER: Liz Walz is still in the Baltimore County jail. She specifically asked to remain there because of her ministry to the women. Susan Crane was moved yesterday to the Women’s Correctional Institution in Jessup, Maryland, and she’s in quarantine there, and probably will be for about a month. Steve and Phil were moved yesterday to what they call the Diagnostic Center, downtown Baltimore. And they’ll be interviewed and processed and assigned to an institution in the state someplace within the next few weeks. So that’s where they all are.


And can they receive letters?

LIZ McALISTER: They can. Sure.


If people want to get their addresses, where can they call or go on the web?

LIZ McALISTER: Well, I don’t know about going on the web. Our email address is disarmnow(at)


LIZ McALISTER: And our phone is (410) 233-6238.


And Dr. Rosalie Bertell, where can people find out more information on depleted uranium, your group in Toronto called the International Institute of Concern for Public Health.


Right. I think there’s also a Military Toxics Project in Maine, which has good information, and the Gulf War Veterans Association. So there’s quite a bit of information around about depleted uranium.


And I would recommend people can just go on the web and hit up Rosalie Bertell’s name — Bertell — epidemiologist and editor-in-chief of International Perspectives in Public Health.

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