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Exclusive: Facing Seven Years in Jail, Environmental Activist Daniel McGowan Speaks Out About the Earth Liberation Front, the Green Scare and the Government’s Treatment of Activists as “Terrorists”

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Last week McGowan was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in two acts of arson in Oregon in 2001. The judge ruled that one of the fires was an act of terrorism. He was sentenced along with nine other environmental activists. The government compared the activists to the Ku Klux Klan. We also speak with Lauren Regan of Civil Liberties Defense Center.

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StoryJun 21, 2011“If a Tree Falls”: New Documentary on Daniel McGowan, Earth Liberation Front and Green Scare
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, a federal court sentenced environmental activist Daniel McGowan to seven years in prison for his role in two arsons in Oregon in 2001. The judge ruled one of the fires was an act of terrorism. McGowan was one of six environmental activists arrested in December 2005 in coordinated multi-state raids dubbed “Operation Backfire.” A month later, they were indicted, together with five others, by a grand jury on charges of property destruction, arson and conspiracy relating to actions going back nearly a decade, which were attributed to the underground Earth Liberation Front. No one was hurt in any of the actions.

The 11 activists were threatened with life sentences if they refused to cooperate with the government and serve as informants. After months of negotiation, in November of last year, McGowan and three others pled guilty to some of the charges, on the condition they would remain noncooperative with the state. As a result, the government has sought a “terrorism enhancement” for their sentences. The National Lawyers Guild called the terrorism sentencing enhancement issued to Daniel McGowan an unnecessary and excessive government tactic to discourage the exercise of free speech.

I’m joined now in our firehouse studio by Daniel McGowan, sentenced to seven years in prison last week. He begins his term July 2nd. This is his first national broadcast interview since the sentencing.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Daniel.

DANIEL McGOWAN: Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to 2001. What happened?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Well, in 2001 I was involved with the Earth Liberation Front, and I was involved in two separate arsons in one year. One was at a company called Superior Lumber Corporation, that was logging an old-growth forest in Oregon and the Northwest. The other was a company called Jefferson Poplar Farms, which I believe was involved in genetic engineering tree research. So I was involved in this group; we did these two arsons. I had severe reservations about being involved in destroying property, but I felt very strongly about the issues. I felt, at the time, we were not getting anywhere with sort of polite protest, very disenchanted with the whole political process. And we targeted these two facilities for, you know, using fire, destroyed a significant portion of them. The actions were intended to destroy corporate property. We took extreme precautions in these actions so that we wouldn’t harm anyone. But after the second arson, I became incredibly disenchanted with the use of fire. I saw the rebound effect. I thought about how dangerous it was and the life—the lives that we put at risk by igniting basically a million-and-a-half-dollar arson at Jefferson Poplar Farms. Along with some other issues, it just led to me leaving the group and moving on with life, getting back to the activism that I had been involved with for the last 10 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Jefferson Poplar Farms and Superior Lumber. Why Superior Lumber?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Well, it had—on some level, it had to do with the fact that Superior Lumber was very similar to many of the lumber corporations in the Northwest. They weren’t particularly—they weren’t the largest, but they certainly just were logging old-growth forest using helicopter logging and having a really devastating impact on the ecosystem there. They’re very unpopular. A lot of people did not like the impact they were having on local ecosystems. But they were sort of picked because they were so unspectacular. But they’re one of the many, many companies in the Northwest that are continuing to liquidate the national forest, as well as, you know, private lands.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you set them on fire?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Well, actually, I was a lookout for that action. I had been involved, but only for a short amount of time. I didn’t have a lot of experience with the creation of incendiary devices. I was invited from some people that I had met a few months prior. And I was a lookout and with about four other people, including the main informant in the case, named Jacob Ferguson, who wore a wire, just in 2005, to wire our conversations. And it was—


DANIEL McGOWAN: Yes. In 2004, actually. But he was involved in that arson. He’s not indicted for that. And, you know, it was a pretty simple affair, actually. And I was the lookout. And there was a few other people involved. And, you know, when we were driving off, we heard the four-alarm radio signal, and the next day we found out it was a million dollars in damage.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean to say you became disenchanted? What then did you do?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Well, I had been involved in activism since around '97. And for a brief period of time of that activism, I took to destroying property as—because I'm essentially a very pragmatic person. I felt like I was willing to try other things. The tactics that we were using were not working. We were sort of bringing up safety issues for myself and others. I was willing to look at that and say, “Well, I need to step back from this.” I have to say the—

AMY GOODMAN: Were you concerned that someone might have been asleep inside, or—

DANIEL McGOWAN: Well, I wasn’t concerned about that, because I think we took extreme precautions. And definitely many actions were called off based on things like security guards. What did it for me was some of the members of the group that I was involved in went and, right when my friend Jeff Luers was about to go on trial, went back and destroyed 36 SUVs at the same exact car lot that Jeff was going on trial for burning a year prior. And I have to say that had a massive impact on his trial, and he chose a judge trial at the moment, and he—at that time, and got a 22-year, eight-month sentence. And that sort of carelessness really made me step back and start to look at my actions as being very dangerous and having repercussions beyond my control.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you recorded in 2004 saying by Jacob Ferguson?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Well, Jacob was an old friend. And I was recorded essentially reminiscing with old friends about things that we were involved in. So there was definitely a lot of leading me into conversations about these actions. There wasn’t a direct confessional, but I was certainly—listening to the wiretaps, you can see that I was involved in these actions. I had a lot of knowledge about particular things. So it was certainly enough to get an indictment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jacob chose to cooperate.


AMY GOODMAN: You have chosen not to.


AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Well, essentially, it’s me living my life the way I was taught by my parents, which is you don’t point fingers at people to get out of trouble. And I made promises to myself at that time and to others that I wouldn’t ever, you know, blame them for—if we were ever in trouble, I would never blame them for getting into trouble. And my three co-defendants and I have chosen that route. And by choosing that route, we’ve definitely been—the government would say we haven’t been punished, but we’ve definitely been punished in the sense of like just getting a lot of hostility and venom on the part of the prosecution and even the judge.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jacob’s decision, your old friend, your thoughts?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Well, I think it’s really sad. I think he fell into a really sad time in his life, and he was abusing drugs. And they used the threat of taking his child away from him. I think it’s ultimately a really horrible choice, and I don’t know how he lives with himself, but I mostly these days feel a lot of pity for Jacob, more than anything.

AMY GOODMAN: What happens to him?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Well, from what I understood from one of the defense counsel, said in court last month, Jacob is going to be pleading to one count of arson and receiving probation this month in Lane County—and I suppose a stern lecture from the judge, but that doesn’t always make it easier on any of the nine-plus defendants that are now going to federal prison.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Daniel McGowan, environmental and social justice activist, who will be reporting for jail. Well, it’s not clear when, set for July 2nd, maybe longer. We’ll talk about that. We’ll talk about the Environmental and Animal Liberation Front when we come back with our guest, Daniel McGowan. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest today is Daniel McGowan, environmental activist, has just been sentenced for two arsons he was involved with in 2001 in Oregon, sentenced along with other people. He is headed to jail perhaps July 2nd, unless he’s able to put it off for the month that he is asking for. We are also joined on the telephone by another guest. We’re joined on the phone by Lauren Regan, executive director of the Eugene-based Civil Liberties Defense Center, which provides legal protection to environmental and social justice activists from corporate and governmental attacks on civil liberties. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Lauren Regan.

LAUREN REGAN: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this case, Daniel McGowan’s case?

LAUREN REGAN: Sure. I think there are probably two overarching, important issues relating to this case that make it important for everyone across the country to really take a look at and to scrutinize what’s going on here. And the first is that since Daniel’s arrest and others’ arrests in December of 2005, the government has attempted to say that this case is not political. However, the evidence sharply disdains that point of view. Primarily, as soon as these folks were arrested, Alberto Gonzales, our chief attorney and beleaguered head of the country’s legal division, got on television stations and had a press conference where he labeled these American citizens as “eco-terrorists.” These were individuals that were innocent until proven guilty. At this point, all of them had presumed innocence, and yet the head lawyer of the nation in a pretrial press conference labels them as eco-terrorists, basically destroying any possibility they would have had as a fair trial. And that theme has permeated throughout these proceedings, including even at the sentencing. The government was still trying to say that this case was not political. And it’s sandwiched by the fact that as soon as nine out of 10 individuals were sentenced, Gonzales again has another press conference after the sentencing, thanking his crew for the good work they’ve done and again labeling them as eco-terrorists.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to that moment, to the sentencing, June 4th, the government’s lawyers comparing Daniel McGowan and the other defendants to the Ku Klux Klan. This is a clip of your lawyer, Daniel, Jeffrey Robinson, speaking about this outside the federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon.

JEFFREY ROBINSON: The thing that I’d like to say is that both Ms. Lee and I have a great deal of respect for the lawyers in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and in particular Mr. Pfeiffer, who made the argument for the government at the terrorism enhancement motion several weeks back. While I respect him and while I think he is a good and decent man, Mr. Pfeiffer lacks knowledge about things that he discussed in that courtroom. He stood in that courtroom as a representative of the United States government and told Judge Aiken that Daniel McGowan and his co-defendants were essentially the same as the terrorists from the Ku Klux Klan. That meant something to me personally as an African American. And I am disappointed that my federal government would make that kind of a comparison in a case like this. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and I was born in 1956. I know something about the Ku Klux Klan and what they were about. And what they were about was murder, was killing—completely different from Daniel McGowan and these defendants.

AMY GOODMAN: Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, would you care to elaborate on that point?

LAUREN REGAN: Well, you know, there was so much rhetoric, so many exaggerated statements made throughout each proceeding that occurred in federal court recently—I mean, some of them as outrageous as comparing them to the Ku Klux Klan, others much more subtle. And, you know, the judge—that statement went on, and the judge herself also stood silent and didn’t comment at all on this type of sort of slanderous statement. That, combined with the fact that the government and the court continued to protest that the government was not attempting to label these individuals as terrorists, that was the other giant miss that was going on. They repeatedly would say, “Oh, we’re not trying to label these individuals as terrorists for the rest of their life; we just happen to be seeking this terrorist enhancement against them,” for the first time in the history of the United States, that this enhancement was applied to individuals charged with property crimes that didn’t cause any harm to human life.

And so, regardless of the lip speak that the government continued to give to the court and to the public, it was incredibly clear that that is exactly what they were trying to do. There was no other purpose or reason that this terrorist enhancement should have been applied to 10 individuals, 10 young people who committed acts of sabotage, which of course are crimes. But the crime of arson and some of the other crimes that these individuals were already charged with carried more than a life sentence. One of Daniel’s co-defendants was looking at life plus 1,150 years for his role in two arsons. But yet the government somehow needed this terrorist enhancement to additionally punish them. If not to label them as terrorists and the resulting chill that would trickle down to the environmental movement, there was absolutely no other legal or other purpose that they would have needed this enhancement, other than to go back to Congress and be able to proclaim, “Look, we’ve convicted 10 terrorists. Now give us billions of dollars to continue this fight and to—you know, give us these tools to illegally spy on U.S. citizens,” as we know that they’ve done throughout the last several years.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at an article on Counterpunch by Michael Donnelly that talks about this case. And it says, “Fast forward two years and the government’s target becomes the grassroots. Under the code name Operation Backfire, the feds began the largest roundup of eco-activists in American history. On Dec. 7, 2005, seven people were arrested and charged with participating in a wide array of property destruction actions the feds link to the Earth Liberation Front (ALF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ELF).

“The very same day, several more folks were subpoenaed to testify before a Grand Jury in Eugene, Oregon. A full-[scale] dragnet was launched against grassroots activists. On [Jan.] 20, 2006, Ashcroft’s successor (literally and philosophically) Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced a 65-count indictment against a fictional entity the government calls, 'The Family.' Four more arrests brought the total to eleven, with conspiracy charges now added.

“Ironically, after serving ten years; also on the very same day, Michael Fortier, who was convicted for his part in the Oklahoma City bombing which killed 168 people, was released from jail. In contrast, the government is threatening the environmentalists who injured no one, with extraordinary sentences ranging from 30 years to life plus 335 years.”

Lauren, and then Daniel, I’ll get your response.

LAUREN REGAN: Well, that’s definitely accurate information. On the same day that Jonathan Paul was set to be sentenced, the government was seeking 57 months for his role as a lookout in an arson that happened in 1997 to the Cavel West horse slaughterhouse facility. And on that same day, Scooter Libby was sentenced for his role in outing Valerie Plame as a CIA operative to 20 months. So when you start comparing the prosecutions of the right versus the left, the fact that over 30 abortion doctors have been killed by right-wing extremists, yet this enhancement was never sought, the Oklahoma City bombing, as, you know, Michael Fortier being one of the defendants in that, the terrorist enhancement never sought in those cases. So you see clear discretion being exercised in favor of right versus left political wins, which of course is intolerable when you are talking about justice and equality and, you know, like crimes being prosecuted in like manners. All of these are grave injuries to our entire system of justice, not in particular to this case.

And let’s not forget that deforestation is the number two cause of climate change in the United States right now. And so, instead of actually addressing these issues and, you know, stop subsidizing the timber industry, the government has chosen to kind of deflect that nationwide attention onto these particular crimes. And they ask, you know, what could have been done to prevent this type of action, this action that Daniel and others took. And clearly, if the government had taken responsibility and had actually addressed some of these huge environmental issues, actions like this would not have been necessary, particularly with regard to climate change. Even the judge in court admitted that there are only eight years until the planet is tipped to the point of no return. But yet, we still see politicians and others sitting on their hands. If the government wants to know what is the easiest way to stop underground activists from acting in this way, well, being responsible politicians and actually dealing with these issues would be a real easy cure.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel McGowan, would you care to respond to the disparity in sentences in a case like, well, Fortier, Michael Fortier, coming out of jail at the time that you all were being indicted?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Well, it’s ironic, of course, but it’s something I was very familiar with, doing support for Jeffrey Luers, seeing all these arson cases where people get, you know, three—I think the federal, you know, average arson sentence is 3.5 years. And I’m looking at, you know, seven years. And, you know, looking at Scooter Libby, looking at these right-wing terrorists getting slapped on the wrist is really offensive.

One thing that was interesting is when the re-indictment happened with Alberto Gonzales, and John Lewis having a press conference in D.C. That was also the same day as the Senate wiretapping investigation, or the hearings. So I think the government—you know, there’s an analogy used in court often by the judge about having my cake and eat it, too. And I think it’s really interesting, because there were times where I think everyone in the courtroom was scratching their head. On one hand, it’s not a political case. I’m told that I’m an arsonist; I’m not going to be a political prisoner. The judge was very upset at that, seeing that on my website. But then I’m not being treated like an arsonist: I’m facing a mandatory life sentence. On the other hand, it’s not terrorism, and then they’re seeking the enhancement. And it seems like they were so sensitive to what was being said in the media. In particular, my co-defendant Jonathan Paul’s sister had a very widely distributed op-ed piece about “My Brother, the 'Terrorist.'” And they were literally responding to it in court. And so, my answer—my question was, you know, if I’m not a terrorist, then why are you seeking an enhancement? And if D.C. is not running the show, as they claimed—they actually at one point said, “We haven’t had a phone call from them in six months,” as if that meant something, as if that meant or erased the legacy of the attorney general of the United States getting up there. And I was at Lane County at the time. I didn’t even hear about it until I got an article, and I picked it up, and I was like, “Oh, my god, Gonzales just said something about my case.” I’m really sensing that this is going to go bad at that point. And it’s always felt like D.C. was pulling strings, I mean.

AMY GOODMAN: John Lewis, the deputy assistant director of the FBI, said one of today’s most serious domestic terrorism threats come from special interest extremist groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign. Can you explain these groups, who these groups are?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Sure. The Earth and Animal Liberation Front, I think, is a response to extreme disenchantment on the part of young people that don’t see any way of effectively making change. I see it as they’re groups that employee property destruction, arson and the liberation of animals from laboratories and other facilities. You know, I left the ELF in 2001, but when I hear, you know, these definitions being thrown around like that, it just—it kind of makes me shudder. Now, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty is a—you know, until recently, a legal, above-ground campaign that was trying to close a animal laboratory named Huntingdon Life Sciences in New Jersey and England. And I think the property rights movement and the government likes to conflate, you know, sort of above-ground, legal groups with underground groups in a way of kind of like just having them blend in together, and so they can use the same exact legal tools and repression against groups like that. And they’ll often throw Earth First! in with that definition. So they’ll say ELF, ALF, Earth First!, as if they’re all really the same thing, even though people are choosing radically different tactics based on their affiliation.

AMY GOODMAN: You grew up here in New York, in Queens.

DANIEL McGOWAN: Yeah, yes, yes, in Rockaway, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up in Oregon?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Funny question. Well, yeah, I grew up in the city. And it’s strange, like, when people—you know, people were saying, “Oh, environmentalist that grew up in Rockaway, its kind of hard to imagine.” But I was working in nonprofits in Manhattan, different rainforest protection groups. And I went to a environmental gathering out West, and I met a bunch of really interesting people, and it blew my mind. And I told myself I was going to go to the Headwaters Forest campaign. And when I was literally in the center of the nation on a train, David “Gypsy” Chain was killed by a logger, and by the time I got to San Francisco, I was told—

AMY GOODMAN: He was protesting logging, and a logger had cut a tree, and it fell on him.

DANIEL McGOWAN: Yes, exactly. It hit him, killed him. And so, I was told, you know, “We don’t have spots in our campaign,” so I stuck around in San Francisco and eventually moved to Eugene to work with the Earth First! Journal. I was blown away by Oregon. I had never seen trees like that before. I had never seen forests or animals or anything like that. And so, I had—it had a really profound impact on me. And I was already quite radicalized, but I was—couldn’t believe the fact that people accepted what was going on there. I couldn’t believe the clearcuts on the mountaintops. I couldn’t believe the animal cruelty that I saw.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel, how are you preparing for prison?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Well, it’s been a long time coming. I got arrested 18 months ago, and it was pretty clear to me that I would be doing some time from that.

AMY GOODMAN: We had your wife on then.

DANIEL McGOWAN: That’s right. That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: How is she doing?

DANIEL McGOWAN: She’s doing well. She’s really excellent. She’s a great person, and she’s handled this really well. She’s been running my support campaign from day one, putting up the website, dealing with all the work that is required, the excessive fundraising that we have to deal with for legal costs. I have been in contact with a lot of people that have done time in the federal system. I’ve been reading as much as I can. I’m reading everything, obviously, on the Bureau of Prisons website, which is pretty minimal. I’ve been talking to prisoners and trying to figure out where I’m going. There’s still just so many question marks. I know how long. I don’t know where I’m going. So, just a lot of research—

AMY GOODMAN: You are asking to stay out of jail beyond July 2nd.

DANIEL McGOWAN: We will be asking that at some point, yes. The judge gave me a self-report day of July 2nd. My intention was to finish my classes, which end in about a week and a half, and to wait for the Bureau of Prisons to let me know where I’m going, and then just go right to that prison. But I, in April, started a program, a master’s program in environmental sociology, at Antioch University, just sort of a self-directed, self-created program. I have my own—I recruit my own instructors, make my own classes, and it will end up with me getting a master’s degree in two years. And hopefully I will be able to do that in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: As you reflect on your life right now, what are your thoughts?

DANIEL McGOWAN: It’s really hard to say. I’m still trying to get the big picture of all this. I definitely have regrets. I have regrets that I, you know, employed arson as a tactic. I don’t think morally I’m wrong about what I did, but I do think strategically and tactically it was an unwise decision. I wish that I had people in my life at the time to kind of guide me back to a different path. But, you know, I was very disenchanted and very upset about what I saw. I think those feelings are legitimate. And I think young kids that have these feelings right now, and not-so-young kids, are—you know, they’re legitimate thoughts, and we have to come up with ways of dealing with this crisis and stop ignoring it. And that was my message to the media that day, after sentencing, was we have to stop pretending this is all about crime and punishment, and start dealing with, like, real issues, like global climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Your lawyers filed a motion compelling the government to disclose whether the National Security Agency had conducted illegal surveillance and monitoring during the investigation. Can you talk about the surveillance? And I would also like to put the question to Lauren Regan, in a bigger sense.

DANIEL McGOWAN: We were never able to determine whether or not there was any actual surveillance. I think, from what we’re seeing in the media and what we’re seeing from Gonzales and Bush’s failed statements about surveillance, I’m assuming there was a lot. But the government was really very squeamish about it. They fought the motion very hard. And when we were in plea negotiations, removing that motion was a key part of the plea agreement going forward. So we removed—or, we rescinded our motion as a result of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Lauren, your response?

LAUREN REGAN: Well, I would agree with Daniel that the motion was probably the tipping point, strangely, for the government to accept noncooperation deals. Up until that point, they had said, “You’ll either go to trial and get life in prison, or you will cooperate with the federal government and name names.” And for the last four defendants, that was just an unworkable situation. And we filed that motion. Basically, the judge ordered a person from Washington, D.C.—it was interesting. When the hearing first happened, the U.S. attorney stood up and tried to say that he personally was not aware of any illegal surveillance, and so that should be good enough. And the judge said, “No, you’ll need to bring somebody from Washington, D.C., that is in the Central Intelligence Agency and have them testify under oath that in fact that did not occur.” And prior to pushing that envelope as far as we possibly could, the government capitulated to the noncooperation deals, and, like Daniel mentioned, the motion was rescinded based on that. It was also filed in the case of Briana Waters, which is a co-defendant, who’s being prosecuted for the University of Washington arson in the state of Washington. And interestingly, those Washington cases, no terrorist enhancement is being sought for them. But her attorneys also filed a motion seeking NSA disclosures, and that’s currently being battled in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals here.

AMY GOODMAN: If people want to get more information on your case and what’s happening to you, your time in prison, Daniel, where can they go online?

DANIEL McGOWAN: Well, they can go to the website run by friends and family. It’s

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us.

DANIEL McGOWAN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel McGowan, we will certainly follow your case—

DANIEL McGOWAN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —and follow the latest also when you are going to prison. Lauren Regan, executive director of the Eugene-based Civil Liberties Defense Center, thanks very much for joining us. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll look at the debt in Africa, in Latin America, in Asia, and we’ll look at vulture funds, with Greg Palast. Stay with us.

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