[from Seattle Times]

Who is a terrorist?

After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, it was clean-cut Timothy McVeigh, a brooding loner infused with hatred of the government who was convicted and put to death for that crime.

After 9/11, which claimed the lives of more than 2,900 people, it was the bearded visage of Osama bin Laden.

This year, the Bush administration has touted the arrests of terrorists of a different kind homegrown militants who have embarked on arson attacks to protest treatment of animals and the environment.

During the past three years alone, FBI counterterrorism agents have conducted at least 190 investigations into property crimes claimed by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). None of the crimes injured or killed people.

"Terrorism is terrorism no matter what the motive," declared FBI director Robert Mueller on Jan. 20, when he announced the indictment of 11 people in an alleged conspiracy that involved 17 attacks. Those include arsons at a ski resort in Vail, Colo., a horse slaughterhouse in Oregon, a federal wildlife research center in Olympia and the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture.
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In the post-9/11 era, they say that the word tilts the criminal-justice system against defendants and helps the Bush administration justify a broader infiltration and surveillance of groups that protest government policies.

Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union indicate that the FBI has monitored the activities of some environmental, animal-rights and peace groups.

"You couple spying on political dissenters with grand jury subpoenas and a series of arrests, it's had a huge effect," said Alejandro Queral, executive director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center. "There is a serious danger of chilling dissenting points of view."
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For example, the State Department, when assessing violence abroad, defines terrorism as "premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatants" in other words, attacks designed to injure or kill people.

Other federal laws and codes use a broader definition of terrorism that can include attacks on property as well as people. The statutes define domestic terrorism as acts of violence intended to influence the conduct of government or "intimidate or coerce a civilian population."

Even those definitions are open to interpretation. For example, the vast majority of attacks on abortion clinics, including those that have killed at least six people since 1993, are not classified by the FBI as terrorism.

Among federal prosecutors in Oregon, there is no debate that the ELF and ALF arsons add up to terrorism.
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"There is no question as you look over the past several years at the amount of damage, at the amount of criminal activity that has been racked up by these various groups, that animal-rights extremists and ecoterrorists are way out in front in terms of the damage they are causing in the United States," said John Lewis, deputy FBI director, at a U.S. Senate hearing last May.

Since 1976, animal-rights and environmental militants have been involved in more than 1,100 actions that have caused more than $110 million worth of damage, according to FBI statistics.
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Among the domestic-terrorism incidents included in the FBI database, individuals with ties to white-supremacist and other anti-government groups killed six people and injured more than 135 people since 1996.

During the past decade, the Justice Department has uncovered numerous right-wing plots to assassinate police officers, judges, politicians and civil-rights figures, as well as to amass missiles, explosives and chemical weapons, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report.

"In my opinion, they [the FBI] are mistaking the frequency of incidents with the overall threat," said Mark Potok, editor of a report that monitors extremist crimes for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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full story: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/politics/2002977626_terrorist07.html