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Ashcroft Case Against Greenpeace Threatens First Amendment Rights

StoryNovember 13, 2003
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The Justice Department has filed a criminal indictment using an obscure 1872 “sailor mongering” law against Greenpeace that threatens the future of the organization. In one court filing, the Justice Department wrote: “The heart of Greenpeace’s mission is the violation of the law.” [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript The Justice Department has filed a criminal indictment against the environmental group Greenpeace that threatens the future of the organization.

In April, 2002, Greenpeace activists boarded a commercial ship off the coast of Florida. The ship was transporting mahogany illegally exported from Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. The activists unfurled a banner stating: “President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging.” They did not engage in violence or destroy property. Minor charges against individual activists were settled last year.

Enter Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Justice Department.

This past July, Ashcroft charged Greenpeace under an obscure 1872 law that appears to have been used only twice. The law was originally intended to end the practice of “sailor-mongering,” or the luring of sailors with liquor and prostitutes from their ships.

In one court filing, the Justice Department wrote “The heart of Greenpeace’s mission is the violation of the law.” Constitutional attorneys say the future of not just Greenpeace but the First Amendment could be at stake.

If convicted, Greenpeace could not only lose its tax-exempt status, but be forced to regularly report its activities to the government.

  • Al Gore, former Vice President and 2000 presidential candidate speaking at a forum organized by on Novemver 9th, 2003.
  • John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA.


AMY GOODMAN: We are joined on the telephone?by John Passacantando, the executive director of greenpeace?U.S.A.. Before we speak to him, we’re going to play an excerpt of a speech by a former vice president Al Gore, 2000 presidential candidate who spoke recently at a forum by


AL GORE: John Ashcroft has authorized F.B.I. agents to attend church meets and rallies and political meetings and any other citizen activity open to the public simply on the agents’ own initiative, thereby reversing a decades-old policy that required?justification to superiors before such infiltrations could?take place, and they would have to show a provable connection to a legitimate investigation. They have even taken steps that?seem to be clearly aimed at stifling disdissent. The Bush Justice Department has recently begun a highly disturbing criminal prosecution of Greenpeace, because of a non-violent direct action?protest against what Greenpeace claimed was the illegal importation of endangered mahogany from the Amazon.?Independent legal experts and historians have said that this?prosecution under an obscure and bizarre 1872 law against sailor?mongering, I’m not making that up, appears to be aimed at?inhibiting greenpeace’s first amendment activities.?Now, at the same time, they’re breaking new ground by?prosecuting greenpeace, the Bush administration?announced just a few days ago that they’re dropping the?investigation of 50 power plants for violating the clean air act.?In a move that Chuck Schumer said, and I’m quoting him,?”basically, announced to the power industry that it can now?pollute with impunity.”?

AMY GOODMAN: Al Gore, speaking on November?9 at a event. We are joined on the telephone?right now by John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace U.S.A..Can you talk about what you’re?doing about this suit and what exactly the protesters did who?the justice department is targets along with you??

JOHN PASSACANTANDO: Sure, Amy. What we did is part of a global campaign both from tracking all of the illegally logged mahogany in the Amazon, we call it blood wood; the companies in illegally and tear down the mahogany and pull it out and it’s the beginning of the end of the rainforest when the roads are cut in by the illegal commercial loggers. we were doing actions in ports?all around the world all throughout Europe. In fact, Tony Blair came out praising Greenpeace. This one action that we did in the U.S., the shipment was outside the port of Miami with about 200 tons of illegally logged mahogany on it. We did that to highlight that the feds were missing it, that the illegally logged mahogany was still coming into the U.S., despite president bush’s claims that we cared about stopping illegally logged mahogany, it was coming in right under the?federal prosecutors’ noses. This kept it alive as an issue and?this helped it get an even higher level of protection in the international treaty on these endangered species. It was a simple action, one we?have done many times in the 33 years of history. It’s unprecedented for us to be one, accused of sailor mongers, which is humorous. The real precedent here is that this is the first time that we can find in U.S history that a non-profit group that engages in peaceful non-violent direct?action that organizes people to do such, to amplify the voices of dissenters, this is the first time the federal government has come after the group, the non-profit behind the dissenters, behind the volunteers, behind the people who do the non-violent direct actions. This didn’t happen to Randall Robinson when he was running TransAfrica and organizing people to be arrested by sitting peacefully in front of the south African embassy in Washington in the 1980’s under Reagan.?

JUAN GONZALES: what specifically is the government accusing you of doing illegally that rises to the level of a federal crime??

JOHN PASSACANTANDO: well, they have dug up this old federal statute against sailor mongering, and they have claimed that — they’re arguing to the judge that this fits. We don’t think it fits.?We think it’s selective prosecution. We think that the law is vague.?We think it should bedismissed by the judge.?

AMY GOODMAN: interestingly, Matthew Dade, spokesperson for the u.s. attorney’s office in Miami, in court papers defended the argument saying that the heart of greenpeace’s mission is the violation of the law

JOHN PASSACANTANDO: I would say that the heart of John Ashcroft’s mission is to snuff out disaccident dissent in the United States. We will see who wins, a, in the court of public opinion, and b,?in the courts of Miami.?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you another question, a year ago today, November 13, 2002, the oil tanker Prestige split in two and?sank off the coast of Spain. An estimated 17 million gallons of oil seeped into the ocean, nearly twice the amount leaked in the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989. The oil spread from southern?Portugal to France, over 1,000 miles of coastline were affected, considered one of the worste environmental disaters in Europes history.?Greenpeace has just issued a critical report on the clean-up. What are the long term effects of the spill??

JOHN PASSACANTANDO: well, the long term effects?are still unknown, and the best sort of academic and university?folks from that part of the world are saying that we won’t?know the worst of it for another decade.What you have are the toxins now still being picked up through the food chain and accumulating on their way up.The worst thing is that while?the E.U. has very good laws prohibiting ships from coming in?to its ports that don’t have —-that are not double hulled when?they carry oil, still you can have these vessels flying flags?of convenience, flying -— shipping through their waters?even if they’re not going to their ports. So, you have a lack of double hulls. You have ships moving through extremely sensitive areas. You do not have a very robust maintenance regime, or ways to certify these crews, and you have just a constant?threat even after they saw the horrible repercussions from this?disaster a year ago.?

JUAN GONZALES: the Bush administration, many people have said, is probably the most hostile ever to environmental concerns in the country. Your general assessment of what the Bush administration is doing in the few seconds we have left??

JOHN PASSACANTANDO: I have never seen anything like it in my entire career as an environmental actistist. Greenpeace is a non-partisan organization. We want to push governments,?industry, et cetera, to be better environmental stewards.?we want the world to be more peaceful and green and we have?never seen anything like the out and out hostile attacks and complete giveaways to industry?

AMY GOODMAN: we continue to follow this highly?unusual case that the justice department has brought against?your organization, greenpeace. John Passacantando, executive?director of greenpeace, U.S.A??

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