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Trial Will Decide Who Can Be Labeled A Domestic Terrorist

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Some of the nation's most senior law enforcement officials have called the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol domestic terrorism. But what the federal government considers its most serious domestic threats has evolved over time, raising questions about when serious labels, like terrorist, should be used.

Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports on a case from long ago set to go to trial this year that will put those questions to a test.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: In 2006, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales walked up to a podium at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C...

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ALBERTO GONZALES: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen...

WILSON: ...Where he proceeded to lay out the charges against a Pacific Northwest-based cell of animal rights and environmental extremists.

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GONZALES: The indictment tells a story of 4 1/2 years of arson, vandalism, violence and destruction, claimed to have been executed on behalf of the Animal Liberation Front or Earth Liberation Front, extremist movements known to support acts of domestic terrorism.

WILSON: Though no one died, 18 people were indicted as part of a conspiracy that caused millions of dollars in damages across five Western states during the mid-to-late '90s.

JOSEPH DIBEE: Obviously, I'm not going to talk about the substance of anything in my case, but pretty much everything is open game other than that.

WILSON: That's Joseph Dibee, one of those charged by the government for crimes in several states. In Oregon, prosecutors say Dibee helped destroy a slaughterhouse that sold horse meat. Dibee was ultimately arrested in 2018. He's pleaded not guilty, and he's adamant he's not a terrorist.

DIBEE: This case sort of exemplifies the government's - like, this whole hyperbole about terrorism and, you know, hippies being terrorists. That's rubbish.

WILSON: Dibee's case comes as the country debates what is and is not considered domestic terrorism, a debate that mirrors many of the country's divisions. The Trump years saw a dramatic unraveling of norms. Far-right elements, once considered fringe or extreme, suddenly seemed to have the embrace of the presidency. Many of those forces seemed to converge on January 6 with the storming of the U.S. Capitol. It was an event senior law enforcement would come to label as a clear act of domestic terror.

MARY MCCORD: We're seeing a little bit more of a shift, I think, among the population about what we do think of as terrorism.

WILSON: Mary McCord is a former acting attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice. She says, as we recalibrate the definition of domestic terrorism, it's hard to equate torching an empty building with the deadly hate crimes of recent years, instances like mass shootings at a Walmart in El Paso and a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

MCCORD: That are clearly aimed at people, to kill people and to make other people in fear of being killed, so that they will feel intimidated and coerced and push government policy into it - anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-people-of-color policies.

WILSON: McCord says the most deadly concern is far-right white supremacists. In fact, FBI Director Christopher Wray said as much in March, while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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CHRISTOPHER WRAY: We elevated racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism to our highest threat priority, on the same level with ISIS and homegrown violent extremists, where it remains to this day.

WILSON: So where does that leave the case of Joseph Dibee? Federal authorities still consider him a domestic terrorist, despite his case falling outside the country's most urgent threats. Just before Dibee was indicted in 2006, he fled the country. FBI wanted posters offered a $50,000 reward and noted Dibee should be considered armed and dangerous. For 12 years, he evaded capture, living mostly in Syria and Russia, before he was arrested in 2018 while traveling through Cuba.

MATT SCHINDLER: I'm not saying he couldn't be convicted. He, of course, can be.

WILSON: Matt Schindler is Dibee's attorney. He says calling Joseph Dibee a domestic terrorist goes too far.

SCHINDLER: When we apply this label, terrorism, it's almost as though we're saying to the government, OK, you have carte blanche to use every asset and every resource and endless amounts of money without any real critical thought applied to that decision.

WILSON: In January, after more than two years in pretrial custody, Dibee was released from a Portland jail. He now lives with family in Seattle and wears a GPS ankle bracelet. If convicted, the federal charges he faces could mean decades in prison. It's made him reflective about events from, as he puts it, three lifetimes ago.

DIBEE: Well, certainly, people change over time.

WILSON: Though what hasn't changed for him is a desire to protect the environment. And without elaborating, Dibee acknowledged that today he wouldn't employ some of the same methods.

DIBEE: I feel like a lot of it back then was quite confrontational and probably not very productive.

WILSON: Meanwhile, Dibee's lawyer says the case isn't a priority for the government like it once was. In fact, the federal prosecutor assigned to it for the last several years has been moved. That prosecutor is now working on cases from the January 6 riot.

For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.