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Working for the Clampdown: How the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act Became Law

By Lee Hall

This text was published in Satya, a monthly magazine that focuses on animal advocacy, environmentalism, social justice and vegetarianism.

This year, six anti-vivisection activists were found guilty of federal charges over an interstate campaign that violated the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. That law, originally passed in 1992, was strengthened after the events of September 11, 2001 in response to heavy lobbying from animal-testing firms and pharmaceutical companies. In some cases, the changes trebled mandatory jail sentences. High-profile arrests have also occurred in Britain, involving the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation in an international enforcement effort under the USA-PATRIOT Act. And most recently, with the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), lawmakers have set out to label a wide range of advocacy “terrorism” for damaging or disrupting an animal-use enterprise or connected business, augmenting the legislative authority invoked in the SHAC case.

Animal advocacy groups are ill-equipped to counter the political trend of burgeoning anti-terror laws and the prosecutorial mood these laws stir. The Humane Society of the United States—the wealthiest of animal-protection groups—routinely campaigns for Republicans in close races to make its point about puppy mills or cock fighting . Some of these same Republicans are the driving force behind laws such as the AETA.

Wisconsin Republican Rep.  Tom Petri—a lawmaker who hopes to make the USA-PATRIOT Act permanent and the very person who introduced the House version of the AETA—was  endorsed in 2004 by the Humane USA PAC. Humane USA was formed by leaders of major animal protection groups, including the U.S. Humane Society (HSUS), Farm Sanctuary, the ASPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. Its directors and advisors are, according to its  website, “top grassroots and national animal protection leaders.” Apparently these individuals could stomach Petri’s vote to approve $77.9 billion in emergency supplemental appropriations in fiscal 2003, including $62.5 billion for military operations in Iraq and the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, and $4.2 billion for homeland security. Evidently they heard no alarm bells when, at the end of 2002, Petri received a 13 percent rating by the American Civil Liberties Union. At the same time, Petri’s rating from the CATO Institute was 78 percent, indicating a zest for free trade agreements; and in November 2003, Petri voted “yes” to hasten approval of—ahem—forest thinning projects. Petri receives consistently high marks from the NRA and from immigration restrictionists.

Non-citizens have borne the brunt of the harshness of anti-terrorism law for years, while the animal-advocacy movement has largely ignored the government’s treatment of them. Gruesome deaths of overheating or exposure happen frequently along the Mexican border—the dead numbered 472 in 2005—because enforcement policy since 1994 has pushed people into the most rugged and remote stretches of desert land. We might suppose that any “anti-cruelty” group worth its salt would take notice. But animal advocates were virtually silent on the Secure Fence Act of 2006 (authorizing a 700-mile fence construction project along the U.S.-Mexican border that will threaten the environment, rare plants, bats, jaguars, pronghorn, and human beings).  A release from Defenders of Wildlife recommended “high-tech surveillance and communications equipment, enforcement and conservation training for border security and land management personnel, and strategically placed vehicle barriers and fencing where it will be more effective”—but not where it would imperil jaguars and desert bighorn sheep. The release concluded by identifying Defenders of Wildlife as “one of the nation's most progressive advocates for wildlife and its habitat.” If that group, and other law-focused groups like it, were able to define “progressive” less narrowly, the Secure Fence Act might not have been so easily enacted, and more allies from outside the animal-advocacy movement might have been available to oppose the AETA.

As it is, scores of corporate, nonprofit, and educational groups have endorsed the Act. Did the major legislation-oriented animal groups hold back from waging a vigorous public counter-campaign to avoid upsetting their conservative friends in Congress? If so, progressives should think hard before believing that wealthy and politically influential groups such as HSUS stood in real opposition to the AETA.

To some extent, the overwhelming Senate vote for the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act reflects the isolation of animal activists from the broader progressive community. While mainstream groups romance conservative politicians, the rhetoric of militant activism invites nemesis. Together, these two segments of advocacy pave the way for reactionary laws like the AETA.

A Gift to the State

There’s a growing discomfort among the global public, including progressives, with militant tactics: In California, a firebomb appeared on the doorstep of a 70-year-old whose home was thought to be occupied by a primate researcher; in England, activists against the building of a lab at Oxford have reportedly followed construction workers home after work, and human remains were dug up from a village cemetery to pressure a local farm to stop breeding guinea pigs. In the accounts of such campaigns, the moral questions surrounding vivisection have, unsurprisingly and most unfortunately, been lost. Even support for the campaigners’ freedom of speech has been lost.

One of Britain’s most respected progressives,  George Monbiot, explains the way in which this has played out:

The demonstrators who have halted the construction of the new animal testing labs in Oxford command little public sympathy. Their arguments are often woolly and poorly presented. Among them is a small number of dangerous and deeply unpleasant characters, who appear to respect the rights of every mammal except Homo sapiens. This unpopularity is a gift to the state. For fear of being seen to sympathize with dangerous nutters, hardly anyone dares to speak out against the repressive laws with which the government intends to restrain them.

As Monbiot points out, government seizes the opportunities provided by apparently dangerous activists to begin treating all kinds of dissenters as terrorists. A similar clampdown, as Monbiot observes, is taking place all over the world.

Leading up to the introduction of the current anti-terrorism proposal was last year’s invitation from Senator James Inhofe to John Lewis of the FBI to speak on animal advocacy and eco-militancy. “There is nothing else going on in this country over the last several years,” Lewis declared, “that is racking up the high number of violent crimes and terrorist actions.” The essence of Lewis’s claim received an eerie confirmation when a physician named Jerry Vlasak, introduced as an animal advocate, proceeded to tell a Congressional committee that deadly force “would be a morally justifiable solution” against scientists who test on animals. Not exactly a marginal figure, Dr. Vlasak happened to be a board member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society—an organization boasting a number of high-profile environmentalists and animal-protectionists, and a celebrity-spangled advisory board.

"I'm deeply shocked," said Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. "I don't care what somebody is doing, murder is murder. That is crossing a line that is not only irresponsible and illegal but immoral. And I don't want any part of that."

And it goes without saying that Vlasak’s statement is extremely useful to those who wish to silence dissent. Yet only the public pressure following May’s threat to resign from an advisory role with Sea Shepherd influenced Paul Watson, the group’s president, to  finally dismiss Dr. Vlasak.

Animal advocates who seem unpredictable and dangerous are disengaging themselves from the movement’s ethical platform, and from any moral framework that most people recognize, allowing an oddly effective sort of anti-activism to emerge. Detractors take advantage of the activists’ unpopularity, simultaneously fashioning themselves as stars on the moral stage which the activists have evacuated. One personification of this new anti-activism is 16-year-old Laurie Pycroft who, early this year, finished shopping in Oxford and ran into some activists protesting the lab. Pycroft and two friends quickly made up their own sign, protesting the protesters: “Support Progress, Support the Oxford Lab." Pycroft, who hopes to become a neurosurgeon, gained widespread media attention for founding a group called Pro-Test.

Iain Murray, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute,  points to Pro-Test as a model of “grass roots” organizing for the U.S. to follow.

The Rise of Corporate Front Groups

The silencing of activism strengthens people and groups who want us to believe that exploitation is a moral good. Behold Ron Arnold, who, nearly a decade ago, through Free Enterprise Press, published the book Ecoterror: The Violent Agenda to Save Nature. “After the events of September 11 , 2001,” Arnold’s Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise website proclaims, “our vision has taken on even greater meaning.” Arnold has exploited the current legislative mood, asking the public to send “evidence, information or tips” about activists who may have acted illegally to the EcoTerror Response Network, which will pass it to law enforcement agents. The site objects to the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front, and some “bullies” working at a county branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Arnold paints with a broad brush. As early as 1979, he told Logging Management magazine, “Citizen activist groups, allied to the forest industry, are vital to our future survival. …. They are not limited by liability, contract law or ethical codes. . . . [I]ndustry must come to support citizen activist groups, providing funds, materials, transportation, and most of all, hard facts.” Arnold would later exhort Canadian logging industrialists: “Give them the money. You stop defending yourselves, let them do it, and you get the hell out of the way. Because citizens’ groups have credibility and industries don’t.” So industry, guided by public relations experts, successfully funds the pious “citizen activist groups” whose representatives are welcomed as experts by many federal and state lawmakers. The “citizen activists” know that legislatures will protect property rights, and, when the time is right, manage dissent. Laws such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act validate their perspective.

Then there is Rick Berman’s Center for Consumer Freedom. John Stauber, founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, has likened CCF to  “a tax advantage for paying your lobbyist.” With non-profit status, CCF has ardently campaigned to wave off concerns about mercury in fish; notably, CCF has accepted contributions from Coldwater Seafood.  Last year it spent $600,000 to advertise in papers, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and USA Today, that the government’s concern with obesity studies is "hype." As the Center for Media and Democracy points out, the CCF’s advisory panel has included people connected with National Steak & Poultry, Outback Steakhouse and Cargill Processed Meat Products. Financial support has been traced to Coca-Cola, Tyson Foods, Applebee's, White Castle and Wendy's restaurant chains, the rest stop caterer HMS Host Corporation, Perdue Farms, the Michigan Turkey Producers Cooperative, and the makers of several brands of dairy desserts.

Berman and Co. also sponsors the Employment Policies Institute, which works to keep the minimum wage low.

Also promoting unfettered business are conservative think tanks. In 1988, Ronald Reagan declared that “the most important American scholarship comes out of our think tanks—and none has been more influential than the American Enterprise Institute." Founded in 1943, the group counts among its alumni James Buchanan, Dick Cheney, former President Gerald R. Ford, Alan Keyes and Justice Antonin Scalia. AEI is connected with the Heritage Foundation, and has received financial support from the Scaife Family Foundations, the Kraft Foundation, the Procter & Gamble Fund, Philip Morris, Amoco and ExxonMobil. It leases office space to the Project for the New American Century, a propeller of the Bush administration's crusade for regime change in Iraq. With the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, AEI runs NGOwatch, a “monitoring tool” critical of organized attempts to provide public services contrary to the desires of global multinationals.

In a June opinion piece which ran in the Arizona Star and the Charleston Gazette, AEI visiting fellow Kenneth P. Green waved off “vegetarian researchers” Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, the pair whose high-profile article, published through the University of Chicago, estimates that the typical U.S. resident puts out 1.5 tons more carbon dioxide each year than do complete vegetarians. Green points out that the savings adds up to only 1.6 percent of worldwide emissions. Actually, given that U.S. residents make up just about five percent of the world’s people, that figure suggests that the spread of vegetarianism would make a substantial impact. Green also argues that organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional offerings—without mentioning worker health or the ecological impact of pesticides—before glibly concluding, “Waiter? I'll have the steak, please.”

People committed to a plant-based diet hold a key answer to the global warming question, which is arguably the greatest terror facing the globe. Yet these front groups and think tanks are dismissing us all—even scientists speaking out about the connections between diet and climate change. Senator Inhofe, whose political success has been boosted by oil money, said people who are concerned about climate change “love hysteria.” Inhofe was also the primary Senate sponsor of the AETA.

That bill is becoming law because militant tactics have given oppressive forces the ability to rationalize a need for it; because the dominant paradigm in animal advocacy is isolation from compatible progressive causes; and because corporate front groups have organized around portraying environmentalists and animal advocates in an extremely negative light, then tapped into the current drive for anti-terror legislation.

In the long term, it’s imperative that progressive thinkers create liaisons and learn from each other. The single-issue advocacy groups that follow the corporate paradigm are unlikely to understand the point. But let the AETA be a wake-up call to the rest of us.

Lee Hall , a holistic practitioner of animal rights, works with Friends of Animals, an advocacy group which will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary in New York City in 2007. Lee’s new book is  Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror. This article is reprinted from Satya, a monthly publication focusing on vegetarianism, environmentalism, animal advocacy, and social justice.   An extended version of this article first appeared in Dissident Voice.