(This report was written by Noelle Hanrahan in association with the Redwood Summer Justice Project, which pursues Judi Bari's and Darryl Cherney's civil rights case against the FBI and Oakland Police.)
On April 22, 1970, as 22 million Americans rallied across the country on the first Earth Day celebration, FBI agents in over 40 cities were ordered to spy on and infiltrate these events. Senator Edwin Muskie, himself a victim, remarked from the floor of Congress that this surveillance was "a dangerous threat to fundamental constitutional rights." The power of the environmental movement and the challenge it posed to business-as-usual made it an instant target for FBI suppression.
Twenty years later on May 24, 1990, a shrapnel-wrapped car bomb went off under noted Earth First! activist Judi Bari's car seat, nearly killing her and injuring fellow organizer Darryl Cherney. Even more frightening to Bari, as she woke up in the hospital intensive care unit under armed guard, was the realization that a major FBI "counterintelligence" operation against Earth First! was underway.
Within minutes of their arrival on the scene of the blast, the FBI was falsely characterizing nonviolent environmental organizers Bari and Cherney as "terrorists". Within hours, the Oakland Police Department had arrested and detained them for transporting explosives. It was not enough that the two leaders had been physically blown up; the FBI immediately began to orchestrate a disinformation campaign designed to discredit and imprison these activists and destroy Earth First!
What could make nonviolent environmental organizers the targets of repression? Back in May 1990, Earth First! in the redwood region was gearing up for "Mississippi Summer in the California Redwoods," a bold call that would draw thousands of activists to Mendocino and Humboldt counties. Earth First!'s fierce, grassroots, pro-labor campaign of mass nonviolent civil disobedience was determined to stop corporate timber's liquidation of the old-growth forests. Even in the face of the attempted assassination of the key organizers and a well-orchestrated FBI disinformation campaign, thousands came to Redwood Summer, bringing national attention to the destruction of the redwood forest ecosystem. It is a testimony to the power of the movement mobilized by Judi Bari that today, eight years later, protests to save the old growth forests are more dynamic than ever.
From the moment of its birth in 1908 as the Justice Department's "Bureau of Investigation," a key part of the FBI's mission has been to suppress political dissent. In the early years they used deportations and the career-destroying Palmer raids to target union leaders and communists. Burglary, blacklisting, infiltration, and disruption became standard operating procedure. Later, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Smith Act specifically could not be used to target communists, the FBI took it undercover, developing its "counterintelligence" program dubbed COINTELPRO. In the words of then-director J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO was designed to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" groups whose views the FBI deemed threatening to the status quo.
Richard W. Held: Constitutional Assassin
An uncanny ability to lie under oath, commonly referred to as "testa-lying," is a trademark of rogue law enforcement professionals. Under oath in a deposition for Geronimo's federal appeal, Held remarked on his relationship with Julius Butler: "I think that it may have been relevant, your honor, depending on what the contact was at the time and what else I knew, because I don't recall really knowing much about the case at all anyway." In fact, Held was coordinating COINTELPRO operations in L.A., and Geronimo was at the top of the "Key Black Extremists" list.
Even more damning, Held was the control agent for informant Julius Butler. In two-and-a-half years, Held recorded contact and meetings with Butler 33 times. Contrast Held's repeated denials of knowledge and responsibility with the cold, hard facts, including this from a 1/28/70 memo by Held to the FBI Director: "I request Bureau approval ... to attack, expose, and ridicule the BPP... operation number one is designed to challenge the legitimacy of the authority exercised by Elmer Gerard Pratt."
After a few years in Washington, DC as a headquarters intelligence supervisor, Held was back in the field on the Pine Ridge Reservation three days after the firefight between federal agents and the American Indian Movement (AIM) during which two FBI agents and an Indian man were killed. An FBI memo dated 7/26/75 to the Washington Bureau's Intelligence Division notes, "Supervisor Richard Wallace Held arrived at Pine Ridge, South Dakota Indian Reservation Command Post on 6/29/75, to assist in the RESMURS investigation. He was assigned three important phases of this investigation; namely, the correlation of Bureau-wide informants into the investigation; the establishment of the confidential fund; and the coordination of all intelligence information as it relates to the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the RESMURS investigations... throughout the country ..."
Held's work contributed to the framing of noted political prisoner Leonard Peltier, and to covering up the truth about the agents' deaths and the still unsolved killings of 70 AIM supporters on the Pine Ridge Reservation during the extensive FBI's operations.
From 1979 until 1985, Held was Special Agent-in-Charge of the San Juan, Puerto Rico office. There he presided over a politically-oriented paramilitary campaign against the Puerto Rican Independence movement, creating files on 74,000 individuals. In his last operation in Puerto Rico, Held led 300 FBI agents and U.S. marshals in raids all over the island, trashing office and homes and arresting scores of activists. One advocate of Puerto Rican independence said the raids made "even the desire for independence a crime." Held left Puerto Rico in 1985 to head the FBI's San Francisco, California field office.
Held Turns His Sights on
In the year before the car bombing of Bari and Cherney, a shocking and classic political disruption campaign was conducted against Earth First! in Northern California. In the months just prior to Redwood Summer, the disruption was intense. Bari, Cherney and other Earth First! organizers received over 30 death threats from March to May, 1990. Fake Earth First! press releases were circulated in the community and to the press, falsely connecting the Earth First!ers with violence and sabotage. Local law enforcement refused to investigate the death threats, signaling their tolerance for violence against environmentalists. "If you turn up dead, Judi," Mendocino County Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Satterwhite told Bari, "then we'll investigate."
The FBI's very act of blaming Bari and Cherney for the bombing that nearly killed them, and their repeated feeding of damaging and bald-faced lies to the press about evidence in the case, are both classic components of a "counter-intelligence" campaign. The FBI's own files refer to the use of informants, yet even now the full scope of their actions remains hidden.
Coincidence or COINTELPRO?
In depositions in Bari's and Cherney's civil rights lawsuit, FBI agents repeatedly denied that there was an investigation against Earth First! in California prior to the bombing. Yet, documents at first withheld and blacked out, then later released, show that the FBI field reports written at the time of the bombing stated Bari and Cherney were "subjects of an investigation in the terrorist field."
The Arizona FBI Sting Operation In 1988, a major FBI sting operation was launched against Earth First! in Arizona. In a cynical attempt to discredit and criminalize Earth First!, the FBI spent $3 million and employed over 50 FBI agents, extensive wiretaps, body wires and overt entrapment in order to arrest Arizona Earth First!ers for conspiracy to down power lines.
Judi Bari laughingly called this, "the only joint FBI-Earth First! action ever to take place." Undercover FBI agents picked the target, drove the truck, and taught the activists to use an acetylene torch. The FBI paid informant Ron Frazier $54,000 cash in exchange for implicating the Earth First!ers, and granted him immunity from prosecution for various crimes.
"The first lesson in activism is that the person that offers to get the dynamite is always the FBI agent," joked Judi Bari.
FBI Lies Exposed
It was in the context of such a massive undercover operation against Earth First! that the FBI terrorist squad responded en masse to the bombing of Bari and Cherney in May of 1990. Special Agent John Conway, who was one of the main case agents assigned to the bombing, had also handled the San Francisco FBI office's substantial field work on the Arizona "THERMCON" sting.
It is striking that after failing in a major COINTELPRO operation to tie Earth First! with explosives in Arizona, the FBI again tried to smear and defame nonviolent environmental activists as terrorists by falsely charging Bari and Cherney with transporting the bomb that was meant to kill them.
In his deposition in the Bari/Cherney lawsuit, Held insists that he was completely out of the loop and unaware of the case, even though other FBI agents contradict his testimony and have said that they briefed him on a regular basis.
Key Questions Remain
Were Judi Bari, Darryl Cherney or Earth First! subjects of an ongoing investigation in "the terrorist field" as agents claimed in FBI reports? If so, where are the files? Was this investigation authorized? Were they under FBI surveillance when they were bombed? What does the FBI know about who bombed Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney? And finally, why have they never made any attempt to catch the real bomber?
In search of answers to these questions, the Redwood Summer Justice Project will continue to expose secret FBI operations against Earth First! as we pursue the civil rights lawsuit against the FBI and the Oakland Police.
(This article refers to the actions of FBI Special Agent Richard Wallace Held. For clarification, his father Richard G. Held was Associate Director of the FBI.)