Some congressmen and industry advocates want the federal government to take a hard look at some well-known animal rights and environmental groups, and maybe shut them down as supporters of terrorism.
The idea was floated earlier this month at a congressional subcommittee hearing on ecoterrorism by Richard Berman, the executive director of a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom. Berman, whose group represents restaurant and tavern owners and advocates protecting "the public's right to a full menu of dining and entertainment choices," said a number of high-profile activist groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have links to groups named on the FBI's domestic terrorism list, such as the Earth Liberation Front.
He came to the hearing advocating that the government wage war against domestic terrorism the way the war has been waged against accused terror mastermind Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network - not just by going after those who carry out illegal acts, but by trying to cut off financial support for organizations identified as being terrorist.
In cases of domestic offenders, he said the federal government could crack down by revoking the tax-free status of not-for-profit organizations found to fund domestic terror groups.
"I'd like Congress to look at the tax-exempt status of groups like PETA," Berman told ABCNEWS.com. "I don't see this being any different from George Bush being able to shut down foundations funneling money to al Qaeda. The difference in degree of activity doesn't mean anything if you're on the receiving end of it."
Where Does the Money Come From?
Berman was dismissed by officials at PETA and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine - another group that he accused of ties to organizations that have been linked to criminal activity - as a showman doing his best to earn his paycheck as a lobbyist for restaurant and tavern chains. But many members of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health seemed to take him more seriously.
"I would say there is real cause for concern," said Joshua Penry, the staff director of the subcommittee. "A lot of the evidence is circumstantial, but in some cases it's deeply troubling."
As one piece of evidence, Berman submitted a federal tax return showing that PETA gave $1,500 to ELF, which has taken credit and been blamed for millions of dollars in vandalism in recent years.
"The reality is these groups are getting their money from somewhere," Penry said. "That's the question, just where are these groups getting their money?"
James Jarboe, the domestic terrorism chief of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division, said during testimony at the hearing that ELF and the related Animal Liberation Front have caused more than $43 million in damage in more than 600 attacks since 1996, including the firebombing of the Vail ski resort in 1998, which did $12 million in damages. The FBI calls both groups terrorist operations.
"These are hardened criminals," said subcommittee Chairman Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo. "They are dangerous, they are well-funded, they are savvy, sophisticated and stealthy, and if their violence continues to escalate, it is only a matter of time before their parade of terror results in a lost human life."
The two groups have managed to almost completely elude law enforcement, despite not being shy about trumpeting their successes. They issued a joint statement in January claiming responsibility for 67 illegal acts last year, including setting a fire that destroyed a $5.4 million horticulture building at the University of Washington.
The fact that many Americans support protecting the environment and oppose cruelty to animals, combined with the success of ELF and ALF in avoiding any human casualties in their attacks, seems to some of the lawmakers at the hearing to have created undue sympathy for the activist groups.
"We must strip away the Robin Hood mystique and perceived high ground that some have given these radicals," McInnis said. "It's just a matter of time before a human life is taken."
The lawmakers were thwarted in their efforts to get information about ELF and its backers from a Portland, Ore., man who has acted as the group's spokesman. Craig Rosebraugh took the Fifth Amendment more than 50 times when he appeared before the subcommittee. Outside the hearing room he also refused to answer reporters' questions.
FBI and Justice Department officials declined to comment on whether efforts to break up ELF and ALF have gone beyond more traditional law enforcement practices to include any attempt to cut off funding.
PETA: We're Strictly Legal
Berman's accusations against PETA also included a claim that the group gave money to Rodney Coronado, who was convicted of arson for setting fires at fur farms, and to Josh Harper, who was "arrested a half-dozen times and convicted of assault on a police officer."
The president of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, said Harper was "the guy who hit a police officer with a piece of tofu during a demonstration" and said the group does contribute to the legal funds of those arrested in animal rights demonstrations.
"For young activists who sometimes get overzealous we do provide for the right to counsel, which is a fundamental American right," she said.
Newkirk said the group would never give money to be used to support violence or anything illegal, but said she did not remember the check to ELF, which was reported on the organization's 2000 tax return.
"We have an annual budget of $17 million and he has to go back two years to find something for $1,500," Newkirk said. "It certainly wasn't for anything that he would like it to be for because we don't fund anything that's illegal."
Berman's accusation against Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that advocates a non-meat, non-dairy vegan diet as the healthiest way to eat, was based on a letter that was co-signed by PCRM President Dr. Neal Barnard and Kevin Jonas, who heads a group called SHAC, for Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty.
The letter was sent to dozens of companies asking them not to do business with Huntingdon Life Sciences, a British research firm that also operates in the United States.
Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, ALF and others have battered away at the lab's financial backers with e-mails, threats, protests and bad publicity to convince investors to pull out.
The groups have been known to post the telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of bank officials on their Web sites, urging supporters to call and write often. Supporters of the groups and their cause have destroyed the property of Huntingdon backers, but no one has been convicted of any of the crimes or linked directly to the groups.
PCRM's Barnard said the inclusion of his group by Berman was just another attack by an industry lobbyist.
"It is unfortunate that the tobacco, meat, and dairy industries have launched a hate campaign against health and humane advocates," Barnard said. "Now that an average American's cancer risk has reached one in three, the tobacco, meat, and dairy interests are trying to obscure their roles in this disease.
"This is America and people can say what they want. If it gets to the point of libel, we will sue them," he added.
If federal officials were to go after backers of groups like ELF and ALF, it's not clear what impact their efforts would have. The groups have Web sites, but given the lack of evidence of any kind of structural organization within the groups, it is not clear how much of a role funding plays in their ability to act.
According to law enforcement officials, both ELF and ALF seem to work more as grass-roots operations than many radical groups. There are no identified leadership figures, and those who act as spokespeople for the two groups have thus far avoided being convicted of any criminal links to the organizations.
Recent arrests on Long Island, N.Y., and in Phoenix for crimes believed to have been committed by ELF cells do not seem to have led law enforcement officials to any broader organization.
The Phoenix man who admitted setting fire to several houses being built on the edge of a nature preserve also lived in the housing development and said he was just angry that others were moving in.
In the Long Island arsons, three teenagers were arrested in February 2001 and confessed to setting fires and committing vandalism in a luxury housing development. They said they were members of ELF, but no other arrests have followed.