February 17, 2004

Government Withdrawal of Drake Protest Subpoenas as Targeting National Lawyers Guild is Victory for Free Speech

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Apparently for the first time since the dark days of J. Edgar Hoover, the government has tried to use the grand jury to harass and intimidate anti-war protestors. Drake University and four peace activists were recently subpoenaed to produce records about the National Lawyers Guild before a federal grand jury in Iowa. But in response to the Guild’s opposition and widespread outrage throughout the country, the subpoenas were withdrawn on February 10. This is a major victory for the National Lawyers Guild and the peace movement.

The subpoenas constitute a flagrant attack on constitutionally protected speech and association. They signal George W. Bush’s strategy to make national security a centerpiece of his election campaign, and send a blunt message that dissent will not be tolerated. Bush also likely seeks to intimidate Democrats and shore up his Republican base in Iowa, which he lost in the 2000 election by a slim margin.

Served on February 3 by a Polk County deputy sheriff who works with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, the subpoenas ordered Drake University to turn over documents relating to a November National Lawyers Guild conference. The conference presented nonviolence training for people planning to demonstrate the next day at an anti-war rally at the Iowa National Guard headquarters. Twelve protestors were arrested at the peaceful rally titled, “Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!”

These subpoenas requested the agenda and purpose of the meeting, the identities of attendees and Guild officers, and observations of campus security. The individuals served with subpoenas include the leader of the Catholic Peace Ministry, the former coordinator of the Iowa Peace Network, a member of the Catholic Worker House, and an anti-war activist who visited Iraq in 2002.

The U.S. Attorney’s office said that the sole intent of the subpoenas was to gather information about a solitary demonstrator who scaled a fence on federal property on a different day than the anti-war conference/training. Why then did the government issue five subpoenas calling for information about peaceful activists and the National Lawyers Guild? Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was right when he said, “I don’t like the smell of it…It reminds me too much of Vietnam when war protestors were rounded up, when grand juries were convened to investigate people who were protesting the war.”

The gag order slapped on Drake employees before the subpoenas were withdrawn confirms the government’s intention to conduct its witch hunt in secrecy. John Ashcroft, traveling the country to drum up support for the USA PATRIOT Act, claimed it was not intended to authorize political surveillance of lawful dissent. Yet the Act lowered standards for government surveillance and created a crime of “domestic terrorism,” which Ashcroft will likely use to target other organizations that criticize government policies.

This is not the first time the National Lawyers Guild’s support of activism has made it a government target. In the 1950s, Guild members were subpoenaed before the House Un-American Activities Committee for defending people accused of associating with communists during the McCarthy era.

Years later, the Guild filed a lawsuit against the FBI for unlawful surveillance. The FBI had put agents in Guild meetings, wiretapped lawyers’ offices and homes, and built dossiers on those perceived as critical of governmental policies. In 1989, the FBI finally admitted it had tried to disrupt the Guild even though it had no proof the Guild was a subversive organization.

After the Iowa subpoenas were withdrawn, Guild President Michael Avery said, “The government was forced to back down in this case and it shows that people can and should stand up to the government when it is abusing its powers … the American people cherish their right of free expression and the right of political groups to dissent from government policies.”

The National Lawyers Guild is calling for congressional hearings to determine the extent to which the government is gathering information on student political groups. In the face of Bush’s request that Congress make the PATRIOT Act permanent, we call on Congress to sunset the PATRIOT Act now.