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Informants, Bombs and Lessons

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

In a case built largely on the use of a planted informant, a federal jury in Sacramento, Calif., on Sept. 27 found environmental activist Eric McDavid guilty of conspiring to damage property by using explosives. McDavid, 29, was accused of planning to use improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to damage the U.S. Forest Service Institute of Forest Genetics, the Nimbus Dam, cellular telephone towers and electric power stations, among other targets. McDavid's two co-conspirators, Zachary Jenson and Lauren Weiner, had pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and agreed to cooperate with the government in its prosecution of McDavid.

McDavid, Jenson and Weiner were arrested Jan. 13, 2006, after they had scouted a number of potential targets and begun to procure chemicals to manufacture improvised explosive mixtures. Unbeknownst to the trio, the fourth member of the cell, a woman identified only as "Anna" in the court proceedings, was an FBI informant who in 2004 was tasked with infiltrating the extremist fringe of the radical left. Anna met McDavid and the others through their participation in various political demonstrations and learned of their desire to ratchet up their efforts to effect political change. Through Anna's efforts, the group was carefully monitored, and the cabin in Dutch Flat, Calif., where the group met to finalize its plans and construct its explosive devices was wired for sound and video by the government.

Some of the group's plans -- such as bombing the Nimbus Dam -- seem idealistic and far beyond what it could possibly achieve with its rudimentary capabilities and limited resources. Members had also discussed fantastical plans such as attacking a ball bearing factory in an effort to halt the production of automobiles, spilling a tractor-trailer of jam on a highway to interrupt the transportation of goods and storming into a bank and burning all the money instead of robbing it. That said, the testimony of Weiner, Jenson and Anna in this case illustrates a couple of emerging trends in the radical environmental and animal rights movements: the increasing use of violence -- specifically the use of explosives and timed incendiary devices -- and the growing disregard for human life.

Not surprisingly, law enforcement and security officers are not the only ones who have learned from this case. As they did in "The Family" case earlier in 2007, activists on the radical fringe followed the McDavid case closely to study how law enforcement utilizes confidential informants. Information of this nature is then used to provide instruction on how to detect confidential informants, and thus thwart law enforcement efforts to penetrate radical groups.

Lessons for Law Enforcement

The McDavid case particularly underscored the frustration on the part of the activists who testified. Members of the group had taken part in protests of a variety of targets, including the June 2004 G-8 summit in Sea Island, Ga., the September 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and biotech companies in the Philadelphia area. Following these demonstrations, the activists concluded that traditional protests were not achieving the desired results, and that they needed to take more dramatic "direct actions" in order to effectively convey their message. Members of the radical environmental and animal rights movements use the term "direct action" to describe a wide range of protest activities, most involving some sort of civil disobedience or other illegal activity.

At McDavid's trial, Weiner testified that the group members agreed that protests were not working, and that they had decided to "step it up" with direct actions and "look up our own targets." She added that the small group decided to act independently to force big business and the government to make the changes the activists sought. She also said, "We also talked about using explosives. Eric used the word 'boom' to describe it. He said he knew how to make 'boom'."

In addition to frustration, the trend toward more violent tactics is also fueled in part by a sense of urgency. Considering the issues of climate change, habitat destruction and the perceived failure of the capitalist system urgent, the activists in the McDavid case thought they did not have time to wait for government and industry to change slowly. According to Weiner, "We had to meet the destruction of the planet with harsh tactics."

This case also illustrates an emerging shift among these groups away from a concern for human life. Whereas radical groups in the past went out of their way to avoid causing injury or death, such avoidance was not McDavid's main concern, according to Jenson's testimony. After McDavid demonstrated little real experience in the manufacture of explosives and IEDs, Weiner purchased bombmaking instruction manuals. Jenson said, however, that McDavid was not at all hesitant about employing explosives in the group's direct actions, saying he would not intentionally cause a person's death, but that he would "take a case-by-case approach."

The targets the group considered and its motives for hitting them were also interesting. In addition to the fairly typical targets of organizations such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) -- the Institute of Forest Genetics, power lines and cell phone towers -- the group also considered anti-capitalist targets, such as the World Bank, local banks, ATMs and the previously mentioned attacks to interfere with automobile manufacturing and the delivery of consumer goods. The group's target list also included Huntingdon Life Sciences, which has been targeted by the animal rights groups Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) and the closely aligned Animal Liberation Front (ALF). This array of targets highlights the challenges these activists pose to the law enforcement and security officers who are trying to stop them.

Another challenge for law enforcement is the structure, or lack thereof, of these radical cells. One cell of independent activists often will claim it carried out its attacks under the mantle of different "organizations," such as ELF, ALF or SHAC. In true anarchistic style, however, these organizations are amorphous and nonhierarchical -- there is no single ELF, ALF or SHAC. Rather, the individual activists and cells who act on behalf of the organizations control their own activities while adhering to guidelines circulated in meetings and conferences, via the Internet, and in various magazines, newsletters and other publications. They are driven only by their consciences, or by group decisions.

Another important issue discussed by these various guidance outlets is security. In spite of the fact that radical activists publicly claim they do not engage in any illegal activities, they nonetheless pay an inordinate amount of attention to keeping these ostensibly legal activities hidden from the eyes of law enforcement agencies. According to testimony in the McDavid trial, McDavid and his colleagues attempted to practice tight operational security by using codes and code-names. In fact, Weiner testified that they did not even know each other's real names and instead used their activist nicknames when referring to one another. They also were careful not to talk about their plans on the phone or via e-mail.

The conspirators, however, made some noticeable security slips, such as Weiner's decision in November 2005 to purchase the bombmaking manuals "The Poor Man's James Bond" and "The Survival Chemist" over the Internet with a credit card issued in her name. Then, she further erred by having the books delivered to her residence. In the movies, the online use of a credit card to buy such books would be rapidly identified by a huge government computer and alarm bells would be set off, sparking an investigation. This is not the case in real life, however, and the correlation usually proves more useful as evidence for the prosecution after the fact. In spite of Weiner's slip, it still would have been very difficult for the government to learn of the bombing conspiracy without the inside informant.

Activist Lessons

Radical activists and law enforcement have long been jockeying for supremacy in the area of placing and recognizing confidential informants. This activity increased appreciably after 9/11, and after the Justice Department faced criticism over its inability to find and prosecute suspects staging attacks in the name of ALF/ELF. As law enforcement efforts increased, Web sites dedicated to operational security and spotting "snitches" and "rats" in the movement also began to multiply. This, of course, caused law enforcement to further shift and refine its approach.

In order to identify informants, organizations typically have asked members to engage in illegal activity -- believing informants will not commit crimes. However, as laid out in the criminal complaint and in court testimony, the confidential informant in the McDavid case was authorized by the Justice Department to engage in "Tier 1 Otherwise Illegal Activity." Under the Attorney General's Guidelines Regarding the Use of Confidential Informants, then, she was authorized to participate in activities that constitute a misdemeanor or felony under federal, state or local law. Significantly, the Tier 1 authorization in this case also allowed the confidential informant to provide items and expertise necessary for the commission of a crime that the conspirators would otherwise have difficulty obtaining, such as a cabin or money to purchase ingredients for making improvised explosive mixtures.

The criminal complaint also noted that the confidential informant had been used in 12 separate anarchist investigations. This news caused quite a stir in the activist community and sparked several Internet postings about "Anna the Snitch" and ways to determine how to spot confidential informants like her. The testimony in the trial also generated a lot of interest from activists seeking to gain insight into how the FBI and other law enforcement agencies use informants.

The feelings toward informants who infiltrate the activist movement and activists who cooperate with authorities rather than face long prison sentences is clearly summed up in a quote on one of these Web sites from imprisoned ALF activist Peter Young: "For the sake of clarity, let us be uncomfortably honest: To snitch is to take a life. By words and by weapons, each day lives are taken in the most egregious of crimes. When this happens in the courtroom, we call it 'cooperation.' I call it violence, and I call anything done to keep an informant out of the courtroom 'self-defense'."

A Caution

As the cat-and-mouse game between activists and law enforcement informants goes on, the activists' sense of frustration and urgency will continue to convince some that harsh, radical measures are needed in order to effect the rapid change they seek. This dynamic will tend to further polarize the movement, as more moderate activists split from those who espouse violence. Such a dynamic came to light in The Family case. Although the group had staged several highly successful attacks, its members did not see any movement toward their desired goals. When some discussed carrying out even more radical attacks against people, however, the group split.

As the movement polarizes, those promoting violent solutions are likely to become more separated from moderating influences -- and thus become even more radical and violent. These more radical elements will continue to escalate their direct actions toward the more violent and extreme end of the spectrum. As a result, we could see more bombings, as well as attacks directed against people, not just property.

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