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Activists challenge U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald on grand jury witch hunt

Fitzgerald: “It's like I have duct tape across my mouth.”
By staff |
October 7, 2011
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Bill Chambers (left) and Newland Smith (right) as they exited the building
Bill Chambers (left) and Newland Smith (right) as they exited the building following Fitzgerald's talk. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

On Oct. 6, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald gave a talk entitled, "Prosecuting Terrorism in the Courts" to a meeting of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Chicago. While 20 people gathered outside to protest, three members of the Committee Against Political Repression went inside to question Fitzgerald directly.

Fitzgerald is in charge of the grand jury that has subpoenaed anti-war and international solidarity activists.

Fight Back! interviewed the three who went inside: Bill Chambers, Newland Smith and Sarah Simmons.

Fight Back!: You went to see U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald speak this morning. What was his talk about?

Newland Smith: The talk focused on the much improved job that law enforcement is doing in fighting terrorism now that criminal investigators and intelligence investigators can share information. He credited the Patriot Act for taking that "wall" down between these two groups so now "it doesn't matter what's motivating an investigator to share information...we can just decide whether to use criminal case techniques or intelligence case techniques." Of course, Fitzgerald didn't comment on how the mixing of criminal and intelligence investigations can easily lead to free speech and dissent being criminalized and treated with "intelligence" techniques as if they are connected to terrorism.

Fight Back!: Why did you go? What questions did you want him to address?

Sarah Simmons: I went because I thought it a rare opportunity to get up close and ask Fitzgerald questions to make him squirm. My question would have been "What is your office doing to safeguard civil liberties in the grand jury investigation of peace and solidarity activists, and how do you justify the taxpayers' dollars being spent in this way?" Apparently his conscience is not bothered at all by what he does. His summation of the Patriot Act: It's not really bad and he doesn't know why people get so fired up about it; it just enables law enforcement to work more efficiently. I was also struck by how in awe the group seemed to be of Fitzgerald. 

Bill Chambers: The AJC promoted Fitzgerald as this effective prosecutor of terrorists "including Osama Bin Laden for the 1998 African Embassy bombings and the 1995 bombing of the World Trade Center." I wanted the audience to know that he is better known for the year-long grand jury investigation of 23 anti-war and international solidarity activists.

Fight Back!: Were you able to ask your questions? How did he respond?

Bill Chambers: I was able to ask this question. "There has been criticism of you and your office by ten U.S. Representatives, including Jan Schakowsky in Chicago, that the investigation of anti-war and human rights activists is suppressing their freedom of speech and right to dissent. How do you respond to this criticism?"

His response - "I can't even comment on the existence of such a case, but I can assure you my office is doing nothing to suppress dissent. There were even people out in front today protesting when I came in and they have the right to do that. Look around, there are people protesting everywhere - if I was trying to suppress dissent I would not get anything done."

My follow-up - "Those protesters you are talking about haven't been subpoenaed to a grand jury and had their homes invaded and property taken. So you don't agree with Jan Schakowsky and the other U.S. reps’ criticisms then?"

His response: "People make all these criticisms of me and I can't respond. It's like I have duct tape across my mouth. How do you think that makes me feel?"

Fight Back!: Anything else you want to add?

Bill Chambers: I left the presentation the same time Fitzgerald did and caught up to him as he was waiting at the elevator with several others. I referred to his duct tape comment and asked him how he would feel if he was being accused in an investigation of supporting terrorists. He said no one is being accused of supporting terrorism and I reminded him that his office has acknowledged that several people are part of an investigation into material support for terrorists.

I was able to ride down all 29 floors in the elevator with him and some folks from the AJC. I continued to question him about the impact of his investigation on people who have had their reputations damaged, their homes invaded and some their bank accounts closed - all from an investigation he says doesn't exist.

Exiting the elevator, one of the AJC event organizers made a special point of saying "We are happy you are here in Chicago." It made me think that there are 23 activists, ten U.S. reps, 800,000 union members, and 12,000 people who have signed the defend dissent pledge that don't share that same appreciation.