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Briana Waters and the US legal system

   Tue, June 10, 2008 - 2:44 PM
Just a note about how screwed up the legal system is. Our dear friend Briana Waters is being wrongfully accused of what the government since 911 has labeled "eco-terrorism" and is on the verge of being separated from her daughter and going to prison for something she did not do.
I was part of a benefit for her in August of 2006 to help her with her legal fees, and I just read up on the updates and am Mad. I sit here praying that after all of her struggle there will be some light and she will be found innocent and not be subjected to the twisted bogus 'Patriot act' that turns a 5 year sentence into 30 calling what she DIDN'T even do an act of terrorism.

About Briana (extracted from )

Briana Waters is a devoted and loving mother of her three-year-old daughter. She is a professional musician and violin teacher based in Oakland, California. On March 15, 2006, she was falsely accused of participating in a politically motivated arson which took place at the University of Washington in May 2001.

Briana steadfastly maintains her innocence. She is a peaceful woman who believes in non-violence. In 2001, she directed a documentary, entitled Watch, which tells the moving true story of a peaceful campaign that built a coalition between environmentalists, loggers, and the residents of Randle, Washington to save the old-growth forest on Watch Mountain.

Briana's family, friends, and supporters were heartbroken and left in disbelief when a federal jury found her guilty of two counts of arson on March 6, 2008. She is currently detained while awaiting sentencing. She faces a mandatory five-year minimum prison term, potentially subject to an enhancement of up to twenty years.

The stress of this situation has been enormous on both Briana and her family, especially her daughter. Briana is grateful for all of the love and support that has been flooding in since the beginning. Your kind notes and support (in all its forms) are still very much needed and appreciated. Financial donations are currently being used for Briana's commissary account (the money she uses while detained to make phone calls and write emails, etc), as well as financial support for Briana's partner and their daughter. This has been a devastating loss for Briana, but the struggle is not over yet. Briana's lawyers are hard at work on an appeal, and her friends and family are generously helping her partner John as he cares for their daughter while she is detained. Your continued support helps carry her and her family through these incredibly challenging circumstances.

Please contact us if you would like to help organize a fundraising event in your city. Also, please consider writing a brief statement about Briana and sending it to

Thank you again for your generous support in our mission help Briana and her family!

A news article
Is Briana Waters a terrorist?

In an alarming case, U.S. attorneys exploited post-9/11 counterterrorism policies to pursue and prosecute an environmental activist.

By Tracy Tullis (

March 27, 2008 | In the early morning hours of May 21, 2001, a group of five men and women dressed in dark clothing and carrying backpacks crept close to the Center of Urban Horticulture on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. One of the intruders cut open a window of a ground-floor office; another climbed through it and placed a digital alarm clock wired to a 9-volt battery and a model-rocket igniter in the drawer of a filing cabinet. Next to the cabinet, he filled plastic tubs with gasoline. He set the timer and climbed back out the window.

Not long after, at about 3 a.m., a university security officer driving on his rounds saw "billowing smoke and flames" rising from the building. The building's cedar latticework had acted as kindling and the fire raced to the roof. From a city park a few miles away, the arsonists listened to the firefighters on an emergency scanner.

It took firefighters two hours to put out the flames. By that time the office where the fire had started had burned down to the studs, and the central hall and several botany labs were damaged. Damages were estimated at $2.5 million. The morning after the fire, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sifted through the ash but found no fingerprints. Any hairs that might have yielded a DNA signature had been incinerated.

Ten days later, the Earth Liberation Front, a loose group of underground activists who had burned a horse-slaughtering plant, logging company headquarters, SUV dealerships and a luxurious Vail ski lodge built on mountain lynx habitat, claimed responsibility for the fire. The group explained that it had targeted the office of Toby Bradshaw, a plant geneticist who they believed was genetically engineering trees for the benefit of the timber industry. They said his research would "unleash mutant genes into the environment" and "cause irreversible harm to forest ecosystems."

Federal and local authorities launched an exhaustive investigation, code-named Operation Backfire. For nearly two years, the FBI had no real leads in the Washington case or 16 other ELF arsons. The Earth Liberation Front is a secretive, amorphous group, with no structure or leaders or formal membership. It is more of a movement than an organization; anyone with a rage against ecological destruction and a match can act in the name of the ELF. The FBI didn't know where to go looking for them.

In spring 2003, FBI agents finally got their first break. They closed in on Jacob Ferguson, a heroin-addicted drifter who played in a metal band called Eat Shit Fuckface, and who had insinuated himself into the radical environmental movement -- no doubt finding a convenient outlet for the pyromaniacal tendencies he'd exhibited since the age of 8.

Ferguson quickly turned informant. He admitted to setting the first fire attributed to the ELF in the United States, in 1996, and to 12 additional arsons, mostly in Oregon. Although many ELF "elves" knew only two or three others, Ferguson knew pretty much everyone. Prosecutors dispatched him across the country -- from Arizona to New York -- to meet with his former compatriots and record their conversations with a hidden wire. Soon the FBI was knocking on doors across the country.

Most of the suspected arsonists, if convicted, would face at least 30 years in prison. Lured with promises of reduced sentences, friends turned in friends, boyfriends offered up the names of girlfriends. Recriminations flew. Those who named names "have dishonored themselves ... by becoming vicious traitors and tools of the state," wrote two non-cooperators in the Earth First! journal. In 2006, the trail of accusations led the FBI to the door of a quiet 32-year-old violin teacher in Berkeley, Calif., named Briana Waters.

Earlier this month, on March 6, a federal jury in Tacoma, Wash., found Waters guilty of two counts of arson for serving as a lookout at the University of Washington fire. According to two women who testified against her in return for dramatically reduced sentences, Waters hid in a shrub near the Center for Urban Horticulture with a walkie-talkie, ready to alert the others if the campus police strolled by. Waters testified she wasn't even in Seattle that night.

Although Waters was on trial for only the University of Washington arson, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Friedman charged that she was part of a conspiracy -- a member of a "prolific cell" of the Earth Liberation Front, responsible for 17 fires set in four states over five years. Ten conspirators have pleaded guilty and been sentenced; four have fled the country; three are awaiting sentencing. Waters, the only one of the accused to have pleaded innocent and therefore the only one to have stood trial, now faces 20 years in prison.

The group's alleged ringleader, William Rodgers, avoided a trial in his own way. From his jail cell in Flagstaff, Ariz., two weeks after his arrest in December 2005, he wrote, "I chose to fight on the side of the bears, mountain lions, skunks, bats, saguaros, cliff roses and all things wild. But tonight ... I am returning home, to the Earth, the place of my origins." He placed a plastic bag over his head and suffocated himself. According to medical records, Rodgers was found with his right arm raised, his hand held tight in a fist -- the Earth First! symbol of resistance.

Prosecutors celebrated the guilty verdict against Waters as a signal victory in the campaign against "eco-terror," a mission that the U.S. Department of Justice has made the centerpiece of its domestic counterterrorism program. "This cell of eco-terrorists thought they had a 'right' to sit in judgment and destroy the hard work of dedicated researchers at the UW and elsewhere," U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan declared in announcing Waters' conviction. "Today's verdict shows that no one is above the law."

Civil libertarians draw a different moral from the verdict. For them it is evidence of how the Justice Department has exaggerated the threat of eco-sabotage; they see Waters' story as a disturbing example of the misuse of federal authority and the excessive reach of the American counterterrorism program in the wake of 9/11. As Lauren Regan, director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Ore., remarks: "There's a question of whether burning property is really the equivalent of flying a plane into a building and killing humans."

Briana Waters wouldn't seem to fit the profile of a dangerous terrorist. The daughter of an engineer and a stay-at-home mother, Waters was raised in suburban Philadelphia and migrated west to attend Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., a magnet for left political activists. She has long, straw-colored hair and blue-gray eyes, and always seems to hold her shoulders forward, like a girl who is shy about being tallest in her sixth-grade class. At Evergreen, she became head of the campus animal rights organization and led nature hikes through the nearby woods, teaching people how to identify native plants.

In her senior year, she participated in a prolonged campaign to prevent logging in the old-growth forest on Watch Mountain, part of the Cascade Mountain range. Her senior project was a documentary film about the protest, an elegy to the cooperation between Earth First! members and the residents of a small town, who together climbed into the canopy and refused to come down for five months, until Congress promised the public lands would not be handed over to the timber company. The protest saved 28,000 acres of wilderness.

Kim Marks, an Evergreen graduate who joined the tree-sit, remembers Waters playing her violin as she perched in the treetops. "It was the most amazing thing to be 120 feet up in the canopy and hear this beautiful fiddle music floating through the forest," Marks says.

Waters certainly brushed up against the radical environmentalist milieu, even if she was not one of the "elves." Her boyfriend at the time, fellow Evergreen student Justin Solondz, has been indicted for building the device that sparked the Center for Urban Horticulture fire, and she was friendly with others in the ELF underground.

But Waters has insisted she had nothing to do with underground activities. She testified at her trial that in May 2001, the month of the arson, she was busy promoting her film, showing it to college audiences on the West Coast. She has no specific recollection of where she was on the 21st; most likely, she said, she was sleeping at home in Olympia. She told the jury that the Watch Mountain protest, especially her experience building bridges between students and locals, and even logging families, impressed her as a model of sound activism, and confirmed her belief that more extreme measures, like arson, were "alienating" and counterproductive.

As it turned out, the University of Washington Horticulture building was a poor target for arson. Among the items destroyed were hundreds of photographs documenting plant regeneration on Mount St. Helens after the volcanic eruption, research on wetlands and prairie restoration, and a collection of rare showy stickseed plants that were being raised to replenish dwindling wild stocks in the Cascade Mountains. Bradshaw, the targeted professor, has said that although he had considered doing genetic engineering, he was not at the time of the fire. Rather he was conducting basic research on hybrid poplars, a fast-growing species that could reduce the pressure for logging in natural forests.

About a year after the fire, in 2002, Waters left her college town and moved to Berkeley, where she made her living teaching children violin and playing in Balkan and Irish folk music groups. She met her partner, John Landgraf, a carpenter, at a summer music retreat, and had a baby girl, Kalliope. She had little contact with the radicals she'd met in Olympia, and was only marginally involved in environmental causes.

But while Waters had moved away from the old radical environmental circles, the hunt for "eco-terrorists" was intensifying. During the 1990s, the FBI's domestic terrorism division focused on militias, white supremacists and cults like the Branch Davidians. But after 9/11, the agency began shifting its priorities.

Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller decided "they were going to restructure the FBI as a terrorism prevention organization rather than just a crime-fighting organization," explains Ben Rosenfeld, a civil rights attorney in San Francisco. The FBI vastly expanded its domestic and international terrorism capabilities, adding whole new categories of crime to its terrorism portfolio. Acts once considered property crimes -- like the arson at the University of Washington -- were now assigned not to the bureau's criminal division but to the terrorism division.

In testimony before a Senate committee in February 2002, James Jarboe, the FBI's domestic terrorism chief, alerted the public to this new mission, warning that the ELF and its sister organization, the Animal Liberation Front, had become a "serious terrorist threat." By May 2005, agents in 35 FBI offices would be investigating 104 separate incidents of "animal rights/eco-terrorist activities," including the fires set by the ELF in the Pacific Northwest.

In the wake of 9/11, federal prosecutors had some new legal tools at their disposal. Historically, the crime of terrorism has required civilian deaths. In fact, the State Department defined terrorism as "premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatants." But the USA Patriot Act created a new category of domestic terrorism, which is defined as an offense "calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government" or "to intimidate or coerce a civilian population." Under this broad definition, eco-saboteurs become terrorists if their crime seeks to change government policy or action.

Several Republican members of Congress didn't want to stop there. In a letter sent to eight mainstream environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis and six other congressmen demanded that respectable environmental organizations "publicly disavow the actions of eco-terrorist organizations." In 2006, Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which imposes severe punishments on anyone who "intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property used by an animal enterprise."

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Page updated May 31, 2008

UPDATE - May 31: Sentencing Postponed Due to New Evidence
Briana's sentencing has been postponed from it's most recently scheduled date of June 2, 2008, due to new evidence in Briana's favor. A new date has yet to be determined. The following document is the motion filed with the court which explains the nature of the new evidenced:


add a comment
Tue, June 10, 2008 - 4:05 PM
I just don`t know what to say about the American Justice system....complete disbelief and disgust.
Wed, June 11, 2008 - 3:19 AM
Thank you, Amar, for posting this. I have often wondered what Briana's fate has been. This new evidence is surely good news, and one can only hope and pray that it will help to exonerate Brianna. The American "Justice System" can sometimes be harsh, indeed.