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Analysis: New animal rights terror law

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor

WASHINGTON, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- A new law that comes into force this week gives federal authorities expanded powers to prosecute animal rights militants -- as the State Department is warning that their activities eclipse terrorism as a day-to-day security problem for U.S. companies in Western Europe.

Bush signed S 3880, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, without fanfare at the White House Monday morning, before flying to the Baltic for a NATO summit.

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The bill is designed to make it easier for the FBI and Justice Department to wire-tap and prosecute animal rights extremists who mount campaigns of low-level criminal harassment against animal researchers both in the commercial and educational sectors.

Animal rights campaigners and their supporters say it will chill legal protest, and accuse lawmakers of ramming the bill through during the waning days of the lame-duck congress. But supporters retort that there were hearings in both the House and Senate last year and that the ACLU dropped objections to the new law after amendments it backed were incorporated by the bill's authors.

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A State Department security briefing earlier this month for U.S. companies with overseas operations highlighted the threat from animal rights extremists as a major one in Western Europe and the United States.

"Although incidents related to terrorism are most likely to make the front page news, Animal Rights Extremism is what's most likely to affect your day-to-day business operations in Western Europe," read the speaker's notes for a PowerPoint presentation at the Overseas Security Advisory Council's annual briefing Nov. 15.

The presentation goes on to warn that extremist groups like the Animal Liberation Front "cause fear and distress, major property damage, and in some instances ... physical injury, and often put lives at risk."

Victims of one campaign have been assaulted with baseball bats, had their homes and cars vandalized, obscene messages painted in their street, late night telephone calls threatening the lives of their family and non-stop bullhorn protests in front of their homes.

But figures in the presentation suggest that the number of attacks in Britain and worldwide has fallen over the past two years.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry reported a drop off in the number of reports from its member companies of animal rights "incidents" -- defined to include threats, demonstrations and home visits by protestors, as well as property damage and the use of incendiary devices. From a high of 1,600 in 2004, the number fell to 1,400 last year, and only just over 400 were reported in the first half of 2006.

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The association attributed this "sea change" to new legislation and an increased focus by British law enforcement, the presentation said.

Figures in the presentation from the Foundation for Biomedical Research, a U.S. advocacy group that supports medical experiments on animals, suggested that the same decline was mirrored worldwide. Their figures -- of illegal attacks by animal rights groups -- showed a drop from 100 in 2003, to 90 in 2004 and just over 80 the following year.

The presentation cautioned that the statistics "don't give the whole picture."

"Anecdotal evidence and reporting furnished by a broad cross-section of (U.S. companies) and by ... London's Metropolitan Police suggest that although street protests are down, ... site visits and autonomous acts of vandalism are on the rise throughout the region," say the speaker's notes.

Foundation for Biomedical Research President Frankie Trull told United Press International that many universities and other academic institutions in the United States had swung behind the bill after protests against one UCLA researcher culminated over the summer in an arson attack against his home.

"This is the kind of thing that we hope will now stop" because of the new law signed Monday, she said.

But Will Potter, a freelance journalist and animal rights sympathizer, said the bill would chill legitimate protest by campaigners, but not discourage real extremists.

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"These people have shown that they are not going to stop doing these actions," he said, pointing out that immediately following the successful prosecution and jailing of campaigners against a research firm in New Jersey earlier this year, other militants had staged a break in a laboratory in Massachusetts, and dedicated their action to their jailed comrades in an internet communiqué.

"They will not be deterred," he said.

The new law strengthens existing federal legislation, which protects animal researchers and other businesses using animals from "physical disruption." The act signed Monday expands federal offenses under the law to cover campaigns of threats and intimidation that might financially cripple a company without any "physical disruption;" and increases penalties.

It also expands the law to cover so-called secondary and tertiary targets -- companies who do business with animal enterprises, like their bankers or stockbrokers -- and individual employees, neither of which were protected by the 1992 law.

Federal law enforcement officials say the new powers will enable them to launch investigations, including electronic surveillance of telephones, web sites and e-mail, against small groups of militants who are exploiting loopholes in the existing legislation.

Extremists "know what their rights are," according to the State Department presentation, "and as such, commit acts of nuisance that come right up to the line (of legality) without crossing it."

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But it is precisely this kind of controversial, envelope-pushing -- but still legal -- campaigning tactics, like noisy but peaceful demonstrations at the homes of research company executives, which Potter says will be chilled by the new law.

"All this talk of 'terrorism' is sending a message.... It is making a lot of people very nervous," he said.

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