Know the enemy and know yourself and you can win a hundred battles

The FBI Campaign Against Leonard Peltier

Revolutionary Worker #1108, June 24, 2001, posted at

On January 20 this year, on his last day as president, Bill Clinton released the final list of people receiving presidential pardons. Many people in the U.S. and around the world had hoped that political prisoner Leonard Peltier would be among those on that list--that his imprisonment of more than 25 years would finally come to an end. But Clinton and the U.S. government cruelly slammed the door on such hopes.

There were powerful forces in the ruling class working to make sure that Leonard Peltier would stay behind bars. And playing a central role within those efforts was the FBI. The FBI is a major--supposedly "non-political" and "neutral"--institution within the U.S. government. But the FBI's blatant and ugly campaign against Peltier reveals some truths about this law-enforcement body and about the nature of the U.S. system of democracy overall.

The Persecution of Leonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier was framed by the U.S. government for the murder of two FBI agents who attacked an American Indian Movement (AIM) camp on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1975. Peltier and others were in camp helping to protect people on the reservation from what became known as the "Reign of Terror." Sixty-four AIM members and supporters were murdered during this campaign, which was launched by the U.S. government and led by the FBI.

The Reign of Terror was retaliation for the 1973 armed uprising at Wounded Knee when hundreds of Indian people and supporters stood up against the U.S. government-backed murder and intimidation of AIM supporters and traditionals. It was during the Reign of Terror that two armed FBI agents were killed.

Two other activists, Darrelle "Dino" Butler and Robert Robideau, were tried and acquitted in 1976 for the shooting of the FBI agents. As Peter Mathiessen wrote in his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, "The jury [in Butler and Robideau's trial] agreed with the defense contention that an atmosphere of fear and violence exists on the reservations, and that the defendants arguably could have been shooting in self-defense."

However, Peltier was tried separately after he was forcibly extradited from Canada. In 1977, he was railroaded for murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms.

After Leonard was framed, secret FBI documents surfaced which proved that the FBI manufactured "evidence" against him. And during Peltier's 1985 appeal, even the U.S. prosecutor openly admitted, "We can't prove who shot the agents." In a recent article in CovertAction, Peltier wrote, "The FBI has steadfastly refused to release the 6,000 documents pertaining to my case, which they withhold for reasons of national security."

The FBI and the government wanted to lock somebody away for the death of the two federal agents--and that somebody was Leonard Peltier. For over a quarter century Peltier has been unjustly held in prison--for the "crime" of being present as the AIM encampment defended itself during the FBI-led Reign of Terror.

The Feds Mobilize Against Clemency

Through the years, all of Peltier's appeals in the courts have been denied. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear his case. When Leonard was denied parole in 1993, the U.S. Parole Commission set the year 2008 as the date for the next review--many years beyond what the commission's own guidelines suggest. The only way Leonard can be released before 2008 is clemency by the president. As Clinton's presidency neared its end, the demand for Peltier's release took on even greater urgency because of the serious health problems he has suffered in recent years.

Clinton's announcement this January that he would not grant executive clemency to Leonard Peltier capped an intense offensive by the FBI and others. On December 15, 2000, nearly 500 current and retired FBI agents marched to the White House to oppose any pardon for Peltier. The Los Angeles Times described the demonstration as "an unprecedented show of political activism" by the FBI. This was an open act of intimidation by a key unit of the system's armed enforcers.

Peltier wrote in the CovertAction article: "On December 17, 2000, the FBI marched in front of the White House to stop my clemency, and they have worked with the Fraternal Order of Police, who have made shameful attempts to obstruct justice in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, to do the same to me. From behind these prison walls, it is hard to deny that we are heading quickly toward a police state."

While the "rank and file" FBI did their thing in the streets, a number of top government officials were also in motion. FBI Director Louis Freeh sent a letter arguing against any clemency to Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno and Henry Hyde, one of the top Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Hyde put Freeh's letter on his own website.) South Dakota Governor William Janklow met personally with Clinton to discourage any pardon for Peltier. Tom Daschle--U.S. Senator from South Dakota and now the majority leader of the Senate--also spoke directly with Clinton to urge him to not pardon Peltier.

According to the Colorado Daily, a top official in the Justice Department (which oversees the FBI) told actor Peter Coyote, a long-time activist for Leonard Peltier: "I'm embarrassed to tell you that everything that you told me [about the Peltier case] was true, and all that I can really tell you is that there are some extremely powerful people in Washington who do not want Leonard Peltier out of jail."

Some FBI officials have claimed that they were "blind-sided" by the news that Peltier's clemency request was being considered by the Clinton administration. In December of last year, Clinton mentioned in an interview on WBAI radio, which is part of the Pacifica network, that Peltier's application was among the clemency requests his administration was looking at. One FBI agent told Colorado Daily that the interview "really ratcheted it up for us. We were not aware that Mr. Peltier was under consideration."

In reality, the FBI had been working non-stop for some time to undercut any effort toward a pardon or parole.

On November 3, 1999, the FBI Agents Association--a powerful lobby of retired and active agents--warned Clinton through newspaper and radio ads that Peltier's release would be "a moral blow to the entire community of law-enforcement professionals in the United States."

In April 2000, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a letter to the editor from the head of the Milwaukee FBI, David Williams, denouncing the prospect that Peltier might be released from prison "as a result of executive intervention."

Also in April 2000, an anti-Peltier website appeared on the Internet. The site was set up by Ed Woods, who described himself as "an FBI agent since 1972 and a former officer in the Green Berets." In June 2000 Woods in turn helped the Minnesota FBI add anti-Peltier pages to their official website. The openly stated aim of this internet "presence" was to work against the demand for parole or any other effort to free Peltier.

A Campaign of Many Years

The latest wave of FBI activity against Leonard Peltier came after many years of targeting this unrepentant fighter for the people. Take for example the Minneapolis FBI office, which oversees the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Minneapolis FBI has played a particularly active role against Peltier. In December 1992, the Minneapolis City Council was about to consider a resolution calling for a new trial for Peltier. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, "The resolution was withdrawn when O'Hara [Special Agent in Charge of the Minneapolis FBI] led more than 60 FBI agents, Hennepin County sheriffs and other law-enforcement officers into the council chambers to show their displeasure."

In November 1993, when Peltier applied for executive clemency, two organizations representing 15,000 active and former FBI agents bought newspaper ads and radio time to publicize an "open letter" warning Clinton against granting clemency. The ad voiced outrage Peltier had become a heroic symbol to many Native people and others, and it attempted to cast him as a criminal.

South Dakota Governor William Janklow has also played a major role in the conspiracy against Leonard Peltier. Janklow--nicknamed "Wild Bill" by AIM--has a long history of activity against Peltier and AIM. Before becoming governor, Janklow was state attorney general during the Reign of Terror at Pine Ridge. He worked closely with the FBI in its campaign against Native people at the time and now brags that he was on the scene soon after the FBI agents were shot.

Janklow and Minneapolis FBI agent David Price brought libel suits against Peter Mathiessen when the author tried to publish an extensive account of the incident at Pine Ridge in his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. The book, first published in 1983, is an in-depth indictment of the FBI's frame-up of Peltier. As a result of the lawsuits, this important book was kept out of bookstores for almost eight years--precious time that such deep exposure was kept from people. The book quotes Janklow saying, "The only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota, is to put a gun to the AIM leaders heads and pull the trigger."

The FBI has targeted other prominent supporters of Peltier. Actor and filmmaker Robert Redford narrated Incident at Oglala, a documentary critically examining the federal government's handling of the Peltier case. Redford has said that he was "stonewalled" by the federal government for two years when he was attempting to get information for the film. Once the film was released, the FBI actively organized demonstrations against it. And even today, the FBI continues to retaliate against Redford.

On February 26 of this year, the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Tennessee, asked city police to boycott the set of a new movie Redford was working on. Calvin Hullett, president of the Nashville FOP and a sergeant in the Nashville Police Department, asked cops not to work on the movie set in their off-duty time. According to the Colorado Daily, "Hullett said it was the FBI that approached the FOP to urge police to boycott Redford. 'That's just a typical communication between us and law enforcement. Obviously, we'd seen their march in Washington. They just asked us, as well, if we would join them in essentially boycotting anybody that's in support of Peltier.'"

Peter Coyote has also been an FBI target. In 1987, Coyote put on a concert titled "Cowboys for Indians." a benefit for Peltier headlined by Willie Nelson. The FBI worked to prevent the concert. According to Coyote, "They wrote letters on Justice Department stationery to all of our sponsors urging them to pull out. We got bomb threats, sniper threats. And since I was the emcee, you can imagine that my bowels were in a near liquid state--spot-lit, in an outdoor arena with stands and trees up on the hill. I was checking my car with mirrors for weeks."

The threats that Peter Coyote recounts points at the other side of the FBI's campaign, behind the ads, web sites, and demonstrations. The FBI is infamous for covert operations against revolutionaries and others. From the original railroad to the offensive against clemency, the FBI undoubtedly has carried out much behind-the-scenes dirty work against Leonard Peltier.


Peter Mathiessen recently told the Colorado Daily, "The FBI is really hot, and they would have lost a lot of face if he had been let out. They were really rabid about it. They played dirty. They libeled him repeatedly in the press and in their ads. Imagine libeling a federal prisoner who has been in jail for 25 years. It's bad enough that he got convicted and put away for all his young life--and these people smeared him. The job is to keep Peltier in prison for good."

The railroad and long imprisonment of Leonard Peltier--and the FBI-led campaign against his release--exposes the deeply unjust nature of the U.S. system.

Peltier's supporters are continuing the struggle for his freedom. In prison, Leonard Peltier remains determined and unrepentant.

In a recent statement Leonard Peltier said, "In 1998 the Los Angeles FBI crime lab was exposed for its routine tampering of evidence, especially in high profile cases. In 1997 Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt was released after 27 long years of unjust imprisonment--yet another FBI frame-up. In 1990 Judi Bari's car was bombed, and again, the FBI hid evidence proving the bomb had been planted. Instead of finding the perpetrators, they criminally charged the Earth First! activist who was left crippled for life. Of course, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation the FBI allowed, and further supported, the murderous GOON [a brutal FBI-directed organization at Pine Ridge that was active during the Reign of Terror] squads.

"Year after year I sit through meaningless parole hearings where I am told that I must take responsibility for a crime I did not commit. All the while, the faces of my brothers and sisters who were killed during that era loom in my head, as I suppress my bitterness over such blatant discrimination and injustice. One day I know, this too will be recognized and exposed as a result of the efforts of the people."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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