A diverse group of people are under investigation for 'providing material support for terrorist groups' in a case that has alarmed supporters of free speech. At issue is a Supreme Court ruling that expanded the meaning of ¿material support¿,
Anti-war campaigners and pro-Palestinian activists under FBI fire in US
CHICAGO // You know you've made it, Joe Iosbaker said with a tight smile, when Glenn Beck, the right-wing Fox News host, dedicates a good 10 minutes of his show to you.
But that is all Mr Iosbaker, an administrator at the University of Illinois in Chicago, had to smile about. A veteran union rights activist and a member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organisation, a left-wing labour rights group based in Chicago, he is among 23 political activists from Chicago, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Grand Rapids, Missouri, who have found themselves embroiled in a federal investigation involving material support for foreign terrorist groups.
It is a crime that carries with it a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, and Mr Iosbaker confessed to being among the 23 most worried people in America.
"Twenty-four, if you count Bradley Manning," joked Mr Iosbaker, 52, referring to the military analyst imprisoned under suspicion of having provided Wikileaks, the whistle-blower website, with tens of thousands of classified US government documents.
Authorities will not discuss the investigation. Neither the Federal Bureau of Investigation nor state prosecutors' offices can legally acknowledge the existence of a grand jury as long as no indictments have been served.
And no indictments have been served, even though subpoenas were handed out last year; the investigation has involved dozens of FBI agents as well as an undercover mole that apparently infiltrated FRSO, which has ties to Palestinian solidarity activists, as early as 2008.
The investigation included raids last September on some half dozen homes in Chicago and Minnesota, among them Mr Iosbaker's. FBI agents wielding search warrants confiscated documents, mobile phones, bank records, even children's artwork. Fourteen people were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury on September 24. Nine further subpoenas were handed out in December.
Search warrants seen by lawyers at the time indicate that the activists, a loose collection of left-wingers, anti-war and Palestinian solidarity campaigners, are suspected of "providing, attempting or conspiring to provide, material support to designated foreign terrorist organisations".
Two groups were specifically mentioned: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as Farc, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the PFLP, though it is links with the latter that appear to be the focus of investigators.
The activists themselves are calling the investigation "political repression" and say it is an attempt by the federal government to intimidate anti-war campaigners and, specifically, pro-Palestinian activism in the US.
Attorneys for the activists further say the investigation gathered momentum only after a Supreme Court ruling last June that upheld a law defining material support for foreign terrorist groups to include not only financial assistance and weaponry, but also "expert advice", including advice on legal activities or indeed advice to end violent activities.
That six-to-three majority ruling in the case of Holder versus Humanitarian Law Project has come under considerable criticism by human rights groups for potentially undermining constitutional rights to free speech and assembly and peace efforts abroad.
David Smock, a vice-president at the centre for mediation of the United States Institute for Peace, an independent conflict-resolution and management institution based in Washington that was established by the US Congress, called the ruling "pretty wild".
"The broader and more normal meaning of material support, namely financial support, arms and so on, is perfectly reasonable and clear. To stretch it to include advice that relates to human rights and peace-making isn't," he said
The ruling has yet to be applied in any other case, but those ensnared by the FBI investigation in Chicago believe they are likely to be the first.
Hatem Abudayyeh, 39, whose home in Chicago was also raided last September, said: "It's pretty clear that this is a test case for that really horrible, precedent-setting court decision."
Mr Abudayyeh is a co-founder of the Palestine Solidarity Group, an organisation whose activities appear to be at the centre of the investigation. The Palestine Solidarity Group organises annual trips to the Palestinian territories in co-ordination with Palestinian NGOs. One of these is the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees, whose former president, Maha Nasser, who died in 2008, was a member of the PFLP.
The PFLP, a left-wing Palestinian liberation movement that had its heyday in the 1970s, is designated a terrorist group by the US State Department.
But the the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees, which is registered with the US-funded Palestinian Authority, based in Ramullah in the West Bank, claims no organisational links to the PFLP. The Union of Palestinian Women's Committees advocates the empowerment of women in Palestinian society and, in its online mission statement, proclaims itself to be part of the "international progressive movement against the militarisation of globalisation".
Khalida Jarrar, one of three PFLP legislators in the 132-seat Palestinian parliament, also denied any financial links between her party and the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees. Moreover, Mr Abudayyeh said, any co-ordination with the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees had been strictly logistical.
The federal investigation, he said, had nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with politics. The Palestine Solidarity Group actively promotes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign to boycott Israeli products and curtail international investment in, and official government support for, Israel.
The campaign is modelled on the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, a movement that would arguably have been criminalised today under the broad definition of material support for terrorism in the Holder v Humanitarian Law Project ruling. Mr Abudayyeh said there was a connection between what he said was growing support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and the investigation.
"In the United States specifically, people are starting to understand that Israel is a pariah state," Mr Abudayyeh said. "And repression in this country, whether against the black liberation movement, the Chicano liberation movement, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the women's rights movement, is historically directed at folks who are doing effective and impactful work."
Michael Deutsch, an attorney with the People's Law Office, which represents some of the 23 activists under investigation, said it was hard to see anything other than political motivation behind the investigation.
"I think it is an effort to discredit people who are pro-Palestinian, are educated about what's going on and are giving an alternative voice to what you get in the mainstream media," he said.
Mr Deutsch said he thought the state prosecutor's office would be reluctant to proceed with the case based solely on advocacy work, however, even if the law allowed it. Instead, Mr Deutsch said, prosecutors would be working hard to establish "something a little more solid" in the form of a financial link. "It could be peanuts, but I think they want a criminal edge to their case."
That no indictments have been issued suggests that such a link was proving elusive for prosecutors, Mr Deutsch said. Nevertheless, he fully expected indictments.
"They've used a lot of resources, a lot of effort. An indictment is going to be a big one. It's not going to be just one or two people. It's going to be five, six, seven, eight people. It's going to be a big case."
Vital to the prosecution's case will be the testimony of what activists believe was an undercover agent who infiltrated anti-war groups organising demonstrations before the Republican National Convention in Minnesota in 2008.
The agent stuck around. Investigators have played attorneys' secretly recorded conversations, Mr Deutsch said, which they may use to persuade some activists to co-operate.
"She's been to our house," said Mr Iosbaker, referring to the woman he suspects was the undercover agent. It was another detail in a chain of events he said he still found hard to believe.
It is Mr Iosbaker's union activism that piqued Glenn Beck's interest. The Fox host, no friend of the unions, gave one of his trademark rants earlier this month while workers in Wisconsin were protesting, ultimately unsuccessfully, against the state's attempt to limit their collective bargaining rights.
Never one to miss the big picture, Mr Beck, whose show garners an average 1.8 million viewers a night, tied it all together. "Let me see if I have this right: the union and the leftists are working with the radicals, like the Islamists in the Middle East."
The attack by Beck, Mr Iosbaker said, was "bizarre," Almost as bizarre, he said, as the sight of dozens of short-sleeved FBI agents, whom he had first mistaken for Mormons when they knocked on his door back in September, rifling through his son's high school poems as they searched his house.
Like Mr Abudayyeh, Mr Iosbaker denied any links to terrorism. Those accusations, he said, were designed to cover for "an act of political repression".
"We never provided money or arms or anything else related to military action. We're a small group. We raise money from an annual Thanksgiving dinner. We spend it on leaflets promoting workers' rights and organising anti-war marches," Mr Iosbaker said.