I was sitting at home on July 31st when the phone rang and the caller ID said Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI wanted to know if they could come to my place and talk to me. So I asked what he wanted to talk to me about.
It all started a few days earlier when I went to a public hearing on the Army Corps of Engineers proposal to build a fish bypass for a dam by me on the Mississippi River.
The Army gave a powerpoint presentation. They showed the initial alternatives they considered including dam removal. When they discussed this alternative they had a picture of a dam being blown up (as that is how you remove a dam). Then they indicated the alternatives under consideration which did not include dam removal.
When it came time for public comments, I indicated they should develop the dam removal alternative. I pointed out how the dams cost the tax payers billions of dollars and do all kinds of massive environmental damage. The local paper misquoted me as saying, ” JIM BENSMAN of Alton said he would like to see the dam blown up and resents paying taxes to fix dam problems when it is barge companies that profit from the dam.”
So when the FBI told me they were investigating me as a terrorist because of that story, I was shocked. How stupid could the FBI be to think a terrorist would go to a public hearing and announce their plan to the Army. Certainly any intelligent person could figure out even if the quote was correct it was obviously meant for the Army to blow up the dam to remove it.
I asked the FBI why they were wasting their time on something this stupid. He told me they have to investigate everything. So I brought up when I got a threatening letter in the mail (I suspected it was from someone with the Forest Service). I took the letter to the FBI. They refused to investigate. The agent said my file indicates that was because the US Attorney said there was not a case. But there is a case here?
Their complete stupidity (it is no wonder they blotched the 911 attacks) would be funny if it was not for the Patriot Act, signing statements, secret spying programs, etc. When it is this easy to get labeled as a suspected terrorist, Bush’s claims that they are only spying on suspected terrorist does not give me any comfort.
After talking to me for a while the FBI asked if it was OK for him to come to my place and talk to me if his boss wanted this. I told him I did not know. So he told me he was going to put down that I was not cooperating.
So I consulted an attorney on what to do. I was advised to send the FBI a copy of the Army’s powerpoint presentation so they could see the Army was talking about blowing up the dams.
I then talked to the FBI agent again and he told me the investigation was closed and I am not on any terrorist list. He indicated there is something in my file that indicates I was talked to. The FBI agent was indigent that I would think the FBI would do something like this for political purposes. I asked why they were investigating Quakers for their antiwar activists and brought up past abuses such as Dr. King.
Finally, he told me it was the Army Corps of Engineers who called him. If true, that explains a lot and I can understand why they would investigate if the Army asks them to. He would not tell me who called the FBI.
There is no way anyone in the Corps could possibly think I was a terrorist. I’ve been fighting the dams and in their face for decades. The Army, more than anyone, would know even if it was a correct quote the context was I wanted them to consider the alternative the Army developed to blow up the dam. The person who ran the meeting emailed me, “NO one from the Corps that knows you or that was at the meeting was concerned in the least. When I heard of the FBI goings on I was more than surprised.” The reporter whose story the FBI cited told me, “That is just crazy. I don’t see how anyone in that room would have taken your comments in a negative, threatening way considering your seemingly humorous demeanor, joking, etc. while still making your point about barges footing the bills, etc. and preferring the dam go away. What a ridiculous waste of government time on all their parts.”
This clearly is an outrageous abuse of power and a violation of the First Amendment. Furthermore, if the FBI is harassing citizens to further the Army’s political agenda, they are not working to catch the real terrorists.
JIM BENSMAN works for Heartwood in Alton, Illinois.