Big Brother Close Up

I’d never had to show my driver’s license to speak at a conference before, but not being the type to seek out trouble — especially at this conference — I obediently handed the card over to the woman at the registration desk.  She ran it through a scanner, looked at her screen, paused, and, for the first time, smiled.  “It’s real!” she announced [1]. “Now put your license in the clear pocket below your namecard and keep it visible at all times.”  She pointed to the big black pouch I was to hang around my neck.  It read, “FBI – 3rd Annual International Symposium on Agroterrorism.” [2]

For the third year in a row, the attendees at this Kansas City event were all dressed up with no place to go to encounter a real bioterror attack.  One PowerPoint slide after another, in endless progression, focused on the threats that everyday world commerce, with an assist from Mother Nature, poses to foods, crops, and animals.  There were plenty of dark predictions, and plenty of  ideas about how to set things right.  All it will take, it seems, is more government intrusion in your life and more corporate control over your food.

“How do we know what we don’t know?”

The anti-agroterror establishment is out to compile all the data it can get its hands on — data covering a lot more than foot-and-mouth disease in cattle or plans for making pesticide bombs.  They want to assemble a data bank filled with the most intimate details of human life: what we buy, what we eat, and when and why we go to the doctor or hospital.

John Hoffman of the Department of Homeland Security gave a typical presentation.  He spoke of a National Biosurveillance Integration System [3] that  shares “crossdomain data with the private sector” and monitors pharmacy records and emergency room admissions, ostensibly to get early warnings of “bioevents”.  Through a “Biosurveillance Common Operating Picture”, law enforcement agencies around the country will get information about suspected “bioevents”, but, noted Hoffman, “Senior national leaders will of course see a lot more than the rest of us.”

Individually, most speakers at the symposium appeared not to have sinister intentions.  Their motivation in general appeared to be an honest desire to protect health and safety.  But together, as components of a sprawling bureaucracy formed to address a hypothetical calamity, they start to sound pretty scary.  And in his talk, one speaker, Barry Kellman, managed to embody all that was both scary and sinister about the symposium.

DePaul University Professor Kellman, Special Advisor to the international police agency Interpol, opened by telling the audience that there’s absolutely no doubt about the threat of terrorism that hangs over our food supply, that terrorists have plans in the works are we are woefully unprepared.  With an oratorical style reminiscent of Zell Miller’s notorious speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention, Kellman promised to provide ample evidence of such plotting, then spoke for a full hour without offering any evidence at all, outside of a general statement copied from a jihadist website.

Kellman showed slides with titles in red, tabloid-style capital italics, some including lurid pictures — none of which depicted actual bioterrorism — and spoke in terms of “multiple threat agents” and the need to handle the “massive quantitative data” on people’s habits that could now be exploited by “data mining”, if only other countries had the stomach for spying that America does.  (In a faint echo of former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he asked, “How do we know what we don’t know?”)

The world intelligence “community” needs, said Kellman, to “expose anomalies” like unusual hardware-store purchases like power washers (no explanation offered) and be able to “monitor hospitals and local health centers” everywhere.  Interpol, Kellman said, is “engaged in ongoing collaborative discussions” with the World Health Organization (WHO) on collecting public health data that could be useful for “maintaining order” during troubled times (This, he noted, can be difficult because “groups that are victims of discrimination may perceive that they are being picked on.”)

When chickens are outlawed, only outlaws will raise chickens

Avian influenza strain H5N1 — “bird flu” — figured prominently in the program schedule, because of its potential to kill people and do economic damage.  Dr. Kristy Pabilonia of Colorado State University provided the big picture on the disease, showing horrific slides of dead and diseased birds piled up in Hong Kong, Indonesian “wet markets” where poultry are sold live and slaughtered, and statistics showing that two-thirds of people who contract bird flu die.  She spoke not long before lunch, which featured vegetarian pasta and broiled chicken.  Preference for the vegetarian dish seemed much higher than it would normally be in such audience.

The next day, the audience was shown a slickly produced film on bird flu emphasizing that the threat to humans is very low in the US because our poultry are raised in “highly controlled and regulated biocontainment facilities.”  They were referring to what you and I would call “factory farms”.  Keeping thousands of chickens or turkeys jammed into metal buildings their whole lives does indeed isolate them from potentially infective wild birds and from humans.  But it also means that a single infection could very quickly lead to the deaths of countless birds.

That kind of “biocontainment facility” can serve just as well as an incubator.  Consumer Reports found last year that its “analysis of fresh, whole broilers bought nationwide revealed that 83 percent harbored Campylobacter or Salmonella, the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease… That’s a stunning increase from 2003, when we reported finding that 49 percent tested positive for one or both pathogens.”[4]

The symposium film emphasized that in the bird-flu problem areas of Asia, the “main problem is poultry on small farms” and that centralization of poultry processing is needed.  There was also concern about the increase in home poultry-raising in the United States that has come with greater cultural diversity and an interest in more natural food.  The film led some audience members to wonder if the pretext of an agroterror threat might lead to the outlawing of free-range poultry sometime in the not-too-distant future.

“When everyone is a terrorist, no one is”

In his 2004 resignation speech, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson famously declared, “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.”

At the symposium, speaker David Acheson of the federal Food and Drug Administration frankly admitted that our highly concentrated and import-dependent food system is indeed a sitting duck.  He noted that 80 percent of our seafood and 50 to 60 percent of our fresh produce is imported, producing an overwhelming job for border inspectors. “We can’t inspect our way out of this,” he told the audience.

Acheson pointed out that just a few years ago, almost all iceberg lettuce was bought by the head, and if it was contaminated, it might sicken one family at the most.  Now that contaminated head of lettuce is shredded by a processor, mixed into an unknown number of bags of prepared salads (“Now that’s not a negative thing,” he hastened to add), and shipped out to potentially infect hundreds of families.

The federal government is willing to admit to the existence of such dangers in an FBI terror conference but would not consider holding a conference to discuss the role of the corporate food system in creating those dangers.

The feds continue to have a very keen interest in people they call “ecoterrorists”.  Although no one so labeled has ever threatened to sabotage the food supply, sicken humans or animals, or commit bio- or agroterrorism [5], a session on ecoterrorism drew an enormous crowd at the symposium.  They heard from Brenda Sinko, an FBI official specializing in “ecoterrorism.”  Sinko drew her examples chiefly from the Earth Liberation Front, Animal Liberation Front, and others who damage property or set animals free and, one would think, would be prosecutable under state or local vandalism laws.  But these folks qualify for federal prosecution because, in the FBI’s view, they are “coercing a population” for “social or political gain”.

Sinko was actually quite fair in her discussion of the groups and individuals she monitors, noting that they go to great lengths to avoid taking killing or hurting humans or animals, and when setting animals free from research facilities, they have refrained from opening cages labeled “Infected Animal”.

But in the question-and-answer session, it was clear that Sinko had not fed the audience quite enough red meat.  Attendees offered a host of suggestions for pursuing all kinds of other groups, from the Humane Society to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to urban “gangs”.  Sinko explained patiently that law-abiding groups can’t be prosecuted and those that do break the law don’t qualify as terrorists unless they fit in a federal hierarchy of crime that depends not on what you do but rather on what you’re thinking or with whom you associate: If you do it for money, you’re just a criminal; if you do it for “social or political” ends, you’re an “extremist” or possibly a “terrorist”.  Her team is interested only in the latter.

And you don’t want to attract their interest.  A year ago, following the convictions of ten defendants arrested for damaging the property of timber companies, SUV dealerships, and other businesses, federal prosecutors sought “terrorism enhancements” to the prison sentences; that could have tacked on as much as 20 years.  Group members ended up receiving sentences of up to 13 years.

The National Lawyers’ Guild responded by denouncing “terrorism enhancement” of sentences for such crimes, its executive director asking, “Is this what a terrorist is? Applying terrorism enhancement to property crimes where the perpetrators went out of their way to minimize the risk to human life makes little sense as a matter of law or common sense.”  Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Oregon put it even more succinctly: “When everyone is a terrorist, no one is.”[6]

Doing it without terrorists’ help

The 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City could be considered an act of agroterrorism, because Timothy McVeigh and friends used common agricultural inputs — diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate fertilizer — in making their bomb.  But in a presentation entitled “The increasing threat of agricultural chemicals” by Janet Moser and David Reed of the Dept. of Homeland Security, those potential weapons received only a passing glance.

Moser and Reed dwelled mostly on the possible use of pesticides as terror weapons (after all, the pesticide industry was once joined at the hip with the chemical-weapons industry [7]), and their talk was very persuasive.  While they did not persuade me that terrorists are about to kill me with 2,4-D (at least no sooner than the lawn-care service working next door will), they presented highly convincing evidence that pesticides are toxic and dangerous.  I hoped that other federal officials in the audience got the message.

There were plenty more presentations, on appetizing topics like “Salmonella water supply contamination”, “The threat to wheat of the Uganda 99 stem rust race”, and (my favorite title), “Profiting from unsafe food”.  But outside of Professor Kellman’s talk, there was nothing to really inspire a good soldier in the War on Terror.

It was all in marked contrast to the Strategic Space and Defense Conference I attended last fall [8], where the speakers and audience had been galvanized by China’s January 2007 shootdown of its own weather satellite.  That had been a shot across the bow of America’s space program, so when the speakers at that conference talked about their desire to do more snooping and spying, they at least had an “incident” to point to.

The FBI symposium demonstrated only that Tommy Thompson was right: it would be easy to sabotage America’s food system.  But hard experience has shown us that terrorists pick targets not because they’re easy but because they create a bloody spectacle.  We don’t need terrorists’ help in destroying either our food system or our Constitution; our government and corporations are taking care of that themselves.

STAN COX is author of Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine (Pluto Press, 2008). He can be reached: t.stan@cox.net


1.  See “Real Bad ID”, www.counterpunch.org/cox10032006.html.  My state, Kansas, has been eager to comply with the REAL ID law.  Some other states barely met the federal deadline, which passed March 31, three weeks before the symposium.

2.  I was, strangely enough, an invited speaker at the Symposium, substituting for a more well-known colleague.  The event is held each year in Kansas City, this year on April 22-24.  My assigned talk was on the impact of biofuels on global food supplies.  I couldn’t see how that was related to the topic of terrorism, except that the feeding of our car culture while people are starving could make this country even less popular, if that’s possible.  (see Security Management magazine.)  All speakers’ presentations are to be made  available on the website fbi-isa.org, but have not been put there as of this writing.  Because I didn’t identify myself to people I spoke with as someone who was writing about the event, I have identified by name only those who took the speakers’ stand.

3. The System is not easy to find on the Web.  See the bottom of the page here: http://www.hhs.gov/healthit/federalprojectlist.html
4.  http://www.upc-online.org/

5.  Unless you count the contamination of ten Oregon salad bars by followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in 1984, with the goal of influencing a local election.  For current activity in the feds’ pursuit of so-called “ecoterrorists”, keep an eye on Greenscare.org.

6.  Christian Science Monitor, 18 May 2007(http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0518/p02s01-ussc.html) and NLG press release (http://portland.indymedia.org/)

7.  See the fascinating book War and Nature by Edmund Russell.

8.  S. Cox, “Mama told me not to come“, ColdType, December 2007

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Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is an editor at Green Social Thought, where this article first ran. He is author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing and, with Paul Cox, of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia

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