A Specious Species

WHO’S WATCHINTHE MAN? Thank God the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force finally stumbled onto the Raging Grannies. I know I’ll be sleeping better at night. For those unfamiliar with the Grannies, they’re peace activists who subscribe to the impudently impish notion that it’s better to be outrageous than to be outraged. To this end, the Grannies wear big hats and goofy costumes and write clever songs against the war, which they belt out with more gusto than polish in public places. The Grannies boast sleeper cells — which they cleverly call “chapters” — just about everywhere on the Pacific Coast except, naturally, for Santa Barbara. The city’s strict design guidelines, it turns out, discourages the wearing of big hats anywhere, let alone by large numbers of older women. And ever since street musician Mason B. Mason passed away, Santa Barbara’s gendarmes have kept a tight lid on loud singing. Seattle’s Grannies chapter came to the attention of FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force agents in 2003 when the Grannies, along with 10 other peacenik groups, began protesting the inclusion of Navy warships at the Seafair festival, an age-old celebration of Seattle’s nautical culture. According to recently released federal documents, we now know that members of Seattle’s Raging Grannies — who range in age from 60 to 86 — attended a political potluck hosted by an activist who’d been arrested for trying to keep the warships from entering Elliott Bay using a glorified dinghy. We also have learned that the Grannies attended a meeting called by a peace group whose Web page contained a link to the Arab news service Aljazeera. Given that President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had discussed the very real possibility of bombing Aljazeera, one can see why this link might be cause for national concern. Some Grannies are giddy with all the attention, but Monica Zucker — who at 78 qualifies as an “OG” Granny — remains alarmed. Once you wind up in the FBI’s terrorism files, she noted, you never get out. Your name gets passed from agency to agency and pretty soon you’re not allowed to board a plane or leave the country.

If nothing else, the Grannies have lots of company. PETA, Code Pink, the Earth Liberation Front, Food Not Bombs, and even the Quakers have all been subjected to domestic surveillance since the war on Iraq commenced. Justice Department officials in charge of domestic terrorism have declared it their highest priority to crack down on radical environmentalists who vandalize Humvee and other gas-guzzler dealerships. It turns out that five Grannies in San Jose were arrested for chaining themselves to the gates of a Ford dealership, protesting the automaker’s refusal to produce clean-burning, fuel-efficient cars. Mostly, however, the domestic spying focuses on anti-war activists. In 2002, when Pittsburgh peaceniks associated with the Thomas Merton Center distributed anti-war leaflets, G-Men were on hand to photograph the event. Longtime Santa Barbara peace activist Bud Boothe, who’s spent the past 20 years protesting outside the gates of Vanbenberg Air Force Base, is hardly the sort to be looking over his shoulder for Men in Black. But over the years, Boothe has noticed that base security forces always seem to know how many protesters are coming even before they get there. Maybe this has something to do with the military helicopters that Boothe says fly over his Los Olivos property — which serves as a makeshift campground for out-of-town activists — just prior to their peace actions. In many such instances, local police cooperate with federal agents in monitoring the activist community. Normally, I’d bet a million bucks this isn’t happening in Santa Barbara. But after talking to Santa Barbara Police spokesperson Lt. Paul McCaffery about it, I no longer know what to think. When I asked point blank whether city cops engage in domestic surveillance, McCaffery, normally a fountain of information, went all Socratic on me. He countered each of my queries with a question of his own. “What do you mean by ‘domestic surveillance’?” he shot back. It went like that for about 20 minutes. Before giving up, I pointed out that McCaffery’s responses fell into the category of “non-denial denial.” For once, he didn’t answer me with a question. And he didn’t deny it either.

What mystifies me is why the feds even bother. There’s no evidence the Powers-that-Be have allowed actual information to contaminate their decision-making process. If nothing else, the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui — widely described as the Barney Fife of Al Qaeda — demonstrates the FBI’s aggressive hostility to useful information. The feds are now seeking the death penalty for Moussaoui, contending he could have prevented the carnage of 9/11 had he spilled the beans upon his arrest on a visa violation in August 2001. But the real story is much murkier. Moussaoui first came to the FBI’s attention when a Minnesota flight instructor warned them about his weird student who wanted to learn how to fly a 747 but not how to land it. The flight instructor had to call the FBI repeatedly, only getting the agency’s attention when he warned that “a 747 loaded with fuel can be used as a bomb.” When Moussaoui was finally picked up (on a visa violation), junior G-Men (and women) got excited, and repeatedly pressed their superiors to obtain a search warrant for Moussaoui’s laptop. Despite reports from French intelligence agencies that Moussaoui was an Al Qaeda operative — at a time when the Bush administration’s own security advisors were warning the president that an Al Qaeda attack in the United States was imminent  — the FBI brass refused to ask for such a warrant, arguing they couldn’t demonstrate probable cause.

In hindsight, we can’t say with certainty that 9/11 could have been prevented had federal agents taken Moussaoui seriously and acted sooner. But I’d find it reassuring to know they at least tried.

In the meantime, I sleep better at night knowing that our anti-terrorism agencies have the Raging Grannies in their crosshairs. But then, I have to take a lot of Benadryl to get there.

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