Unabomber I: What Me, an Eco-terrorist?
By Gar Smith / The-Edge
November 28, 2004
At 8:30 am, June 23, 1995, a loud knock rattled the door of my home in Berkeley, California. One look at the two dour faces and four highly polished shoes tipped me that it wasn't the Jehovah's Witnesses. "FBI!" both men announced, simultaneously flashing badges: "We've received a tip that you may be the Unabomber. We'd like to ask you some questions."
|The FBI's now-famous sketch of the Unabomber.|
There is a sign on our door that reads: "Please remove shoes before entering house." I invited the agents to come inside -- after shucking their shoes. As I expected, the agents elected keep their laces tied. They sat on the porch ledge; I pulled out a chair.
"Have you ever lived and or worked in Utah or Illinois?" they asked. "Are you good working with wood? With plumbing? Can we see your workshop?" I confessed that I had no workshop and had been losing a weeklong battle with a leaky kitchen faucet. While we spoke, my eight-year-old poked his head out the door, ready to come to my defense, if needed.
"Well," Walter, the older agent finally admitted with an air of disappointment, "You really don't fit the physical description."
"It's routine," Walter says. "Somebody named you as a suspect because he says you used to the editor of the Berkeley Barb back in the Sixties. We have to check out all these leads."
"Jeez!" I blurted without thinking, "I thought this was for something I'd done recently!"
(I had, in fact, anticipated a visit. The previous month, San Francisco State University Sociology Professor Michael Rustigan had offered the media some speculations on the Unabomber's possible motivation. The Oakland Tribune's story was headlined: "Unabomber an Environmental Zealot." Invited to address this charge on the "Green Hour," a Sunday morning radio-talk show in San Francisco, I suggested that the FBI might have been involved in the attempted assassination of Earth First! activist Judi Bari. Judi, who was then suing the FBI for false arrest, had unearthed documents that revealed the FBI had run a "bomb school" to show local cops how to build and detonate car bombs. This was just a few weeks before Bari's Subaru blew up on the streets of Oakland. Perhaps coincidentally, the first FBI agents and Oakland Police to arrive on the scene had been central participants in the bomb school exercise.)
What Was that Secret Code?
|Trying to "channel" the Unabomber for a TV interview, the author dons a hood and dark glasses. Credit: Edge photo by Maxine Miller|
My FBI interrogation lasted about 20 minutes. As the agents began to leave, I asked a question. "Two years ago the Unabomber wrote a letter and used a secret code. That's how the FBI knew the recent letter published in the New York Times was authentic. But how do you guys know this was the same fellow who sent mail bombs for the first 15 years? Maybe the real Unabomber doesn't have a secret code."
The agents froze. Walter fixed me with a cold stare and asked: "How did you know there was a secret code?"
"Well, it was reported in the New York Times, in all the newspapers, on the radio...." I stammered, flustered but defiant.
John, the quiet, younger agent, shifted his weight, moved closer and asked ever-so casually: "Um, by the way. What is the code?" He waited expectantly. After a pause, I burst out laughing.
(A local political activist subsequently told a similar tale about a friend who had shipped medical supplies to Cuba. Two FBI agents knocked on his door and confronted him with the question: "Is it true you've been sending medical supplies to Cuba and Albania?" Without thinking, he replied: "What do you mean, Albania?")
"Could you give me a business card?" I asked the senior agent. "Nobody's going to believe this story otherwise." Walter complied and I closed the door, relieved and bewildered. I figured that the FBI must not be very close to nabbing the actual Unabomber, if agents were knocking on my door.
The Press of Events
Later that week, Chris Clarke, then-editor of Terrain, the magazine of the Berkeley Ecology Center, asked if I would write a report of my FBI encounter. The incident didn't seem particularly newsworthy but, at Chris' prodding, I dashed-off a quick 500-word piece.
Within hours of Terrain's publication, I received a call from Thuy Vu, a reporter for a local San Francisco TV station. She wanted to tape an interview. "I really don't see a story here," I replied. Besides, I explained, I was just getting ready to take my son ice-skating. "That's okay," she bounced back, "We can film the interview at the skating rink!" She would not be denied.
Vu wanted to "explore the Unabomber's environmental links." Hoping to squelch this attempt to tie environmentalists to the Unabomber, I agreed to the interview. As I returned from skating, a remote TV van was already turning down our hard-to-find street.
Furniture was pushed aside, light readings were taken and the cameraman positioned me on a sofa. The lights flared, the camera rolled, and the reporter began by asking me about the Unabomber's "environmental" links. I stated that I could see no connection. She read the Unabomber's statement about the need to break society up into small, autonomous groups of no more than 100 people. "Do you agree with that statement?" she demanded. I began to get a glimpse of the trouble that lay ahead.
The next morning, when I arrived for work at Earth Island Institute, everyone was talking about a TV news report linking the Unabomber to "radical environmental groups." Some of our members had had seen the report and called, claiming that Earth Island had been named as a suspect organization. The executive directors were concerned. I was in a sweat.
I was relieved to learn that the furor had been kicked up not by my Thuy Vu interview but by a report on the morning newscast of KTVU-TV in Oakland. KTVU faxed me a transcript of their broadcast: It claimed that the Unabomber had been copying the "literature
strategies... [and] tactics" of "radical environmental groups like Earth First!" KTVU reported that the FBI was now investigating SF environmental groups.
Compounding the damage, KTVU illustrated its bogus Unabomber-environmentalist story by running archival footage of Judi Bari's broken body being pulled from the smoking remains of her car after the bomb blast that nearly killed her. This irresponsible use of out-of-context footage was clearly designed to suggest a link between bombs and "radical environmentalists."
The office phone began to ring with calls from reporters requesting interviews. KGO radio was brash and insistent. KRON-TV was thoughtful and skeptical. KCBS radio was sympathetic and helpful. I finally agreed to be interviewed by KCBS.
By the time I sat down for a phone interview with a Los Angeles Times reporter, I had started to warm to my new-found role as "political eco-pundit." I had my sound-bites down. Welcoming the opportunity to turn the tables, I described the freshman members of the GOP as a "band of anarchists" whose goal was to overthrow "the rule of law and the restraints of wise regulation."
The New York Daily News wanted to know if I agreed with the Unabombers' contention that reading anarchist and radical environmental journals revealed a "seething distrust" of the direction of modern technological society. I suggested that watching the CBS Evening News or reading the morning paper would reveal that most people have a "seething distrust" of the direction of modern technological society.
The Washington Post Offers a Glimpse of the 'Manifesto'
Joel Achenbach called from the Washington Post to announce he was flying out to do an interview. I offered to set up a meeting with fellow enviros. I invited Achenbach to a restaurant across from the Fantasy Films building in Berkeley. Karen Pickett from Earth First! and Chris Clarke joined us at the table.
To our surprise, Achebach arrived with a printout of the entire, unpublished 35,000-word manuscript. At that time, nobody outside of law enforcement and a few select newspapers had been allowed to peer into the mysterious contents of the "Manifesto." Achebach's copy had been entered on disk and reformatted. He explained this had been done to circumvent the Unabomber's "guidelines" that each paper make "no more than five photocopies" of his manuscript and limit them to internal circulation only.
Joel read some passages aloud and asked for our response. I asked Joel whether the Unabomber had anything to say about chemical pollution of the air or water or the impact of multinational corporations and extractive industry. Nothing. The Unabomber's opposition to Affirmative Action struck Chris an "intellectual amalgam of David Horowitz and Ayn Rand." The Unabomber's complaint about industrial society's "disruption of the power process" was a particularly odd phrase.
Most surprisingly, on page two of the Unabomber's three-page cover-letter, the author pointedly apologized for any comments in his previous communiqué "that may have implied that anarchists or environmentalists are prone to violence" [paraphrase]. He went on to describe both camps as essentially nonviolent and specifically exonerated Earth First! which, he emphasized, "had never intentionally harmed a human being." I was shocked. The media had this information but had done nothing to discourage the feeding frenzy linking the Unabomber to "radical environmentalists."
Achenbach's lengthy article appeared in next week's Style section of the Post. The lead paragraph described me as a "mellow, aging hippie." (I was lucky: another local FBI subject, pirate radio pioneer Stephen Dunifer, was portrayed as sporting a "Jesus-grown-old look.") After the Post write-up, I began receiving calls from Newsweek, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times. My office voice-mail racked up another 17 calls, including messages from reporters at CNN, the San Francisco Examiner and the Sacramento Bee. Most of them were apparently triggered by the Weird-Doings-in-Berkeley spin to Achenbach's piece.
Ken Noble, the Los Angeles Bureau Chief of the New York Times flew to Berkeley to interview Dunifer and myself. Noble has previously covered Rwanda and Liberia. He confessed that he was relieved to have left the O. J. Simpson murder trial behind after six months.
By now, I'd got my sound bites down. I described the Berkeley Barb as an "antiwar" publication: "We were interested in stopping bombings. We were trying to stop two of the most dangerous serial bombers in the last half of the 20th century," I intoned, "A Democrat named Johnson and a Republican named Nixon." This line, which always got a laugh from the reporters, never wound up in print or on air.
The Times article appeared with my name misspelled and it had the FBI materializing on my porch at the wrong time of day.
A Newsweek reporter called from Washington with a series of questions. "So you say the FBI came to your door," the reporter began, "What were you wearing?" Before I could answer, he volunteered, "Blue jeans and a tie-dyed shirt?" Newsweek had apparently read the Post piece.
The reporter wanted my physical description. "Blue eyes. Blond hair," I ventured. "Down to where?" Newsweek wanted to know. "Hey, I've got a regular haircut," I insist. Newsweek responded with exasperated confidentiality, "Yeah... but down to where?" (I realized I was dealing with reporter from the "paint-by-numbers school of journalism." He already had his picture, all he wanted was for someone to fill in the colors.)
"What does your house look like. Got a garden? What kind of flowers?" "Normal front yard," I confess. "Flowers and grass.... Um..., I think I should rephrase that." I added. "Flowers and a lawn." "Oh, sure," Newsweek chuckled all-knowingly.
Hoping to get some work done on the next issue of Earth Island Journal, I slipped off to my phone-free office in Berkeley's Ecology Center Building. But as I passed the front door, the entire Ecology Center staff looked up and trumpeted: "You've got to get on the phone! Peter Jennings wants you to call!"
I was handed the phone number of a local producer who desperately wanted to film an interview to be up-linked by satellite to New York for the ABC Evening News. Twenty minutes later, not one but two film crews showed up. A jurisdictional dispute broke out over which unit would film the interview.
Since one of the news teams had suddenly become superfluous, I tried to interest them in some "real stories." I passed out copies of the Terrain with the "Unabomber" story that had triggered all this misguided press attention and pointed to the lead cover story -- the awards for the "Top Censored Stories of 1995."
I pointed out that one of these Project Censored stories was my exposé of Project HAARP, a Defense Department plan to build a powerful electronic beam in Alaska to "burn holes" in the Earth's ionosphere. The ABC news crew expressed little interest in a planned Pentagon attack on the ionosphere. There was some mild curiosity when I handed out copies of Earth Island Journal and explained that it was the first US magazine printed on "tree-free" paper (made from kenaf, a fast-growing annual plant).
In honor of their new corporate owners, I gave both ABC crews copies of the Journal with the cover story on "The World According to Disney."
The story continues in Around the Bend -- "Unabomber, Part II: England Calling."
For more information contact: