Friday, September 27, 2013

Collaborative Film: The Vermont Movie Tour

After years in development, Freedom and Unity: The Vermont Movie, a six-part collaborative documentary, begins a three month roadshow tour this weekend, with premiers and discussions scheduled across the state.

The six films synthesize the contributions of more than three dozen filmmakers and historians into an expressive, educational and occasionally provocative experience that explores the state’s unusual past and diverse contributions.

The Vermont Movie will tour the state from Sept. 27, 2013 to December 4, 2013. 

To promote dozens of screening locations and dates, the production has set up an online Tour Schedule

Gala Premieres in various Vermont counties will include catered receptions before the screening of Part One, and a Question & Answer session afterward. Screenings of Parts Two through Six will also include Q & A panels with Vermont Movie filmmakers and authorities on the content. 

Project coordinator and chief editor Nora Jacobson has spent years pulling together the pieces of this complex puzzle, shaping them into a thematically-driven narrative that is original, substantive and dramatic. The result is a series of films – each effective on its own – that explore the state’s nature over time through intimate portraits, indelible stories, dramatic recreations and interconnected topics.

Part One, titled A Very New Idea, examines the roots from which the future state grew. Samuel de Champlain steps into a canoe, paving the way for Yankee immersion into native culture. Along the way we see early settlements, native peoples’ resistance, and the little-known history of African American settlers.

Pioneer rebel Ethan Allen leads the struggle for independence, resulting in Vermont’s radical constitution – the first to outlaw slavery. Later, Vermont’s heroic role in the Civil War suggests that, despite occasional missteps, the state motto – Freedom and Unity – is especially apt.

As its title states, Part Two digs Under the Surface of the state’s bucolic image to explore labor wars, eugenics experiments, the McCarthy era, and progressive Republicanism. Covering almost a century -- post-Civil War to the 1950s — it chronicles the rise of unions and quarry work, Barre’s Socialist Party Labor Hall, the marketing of Vermont, the state’s reaction to New Deal policies, George Aiken's gentle populism, and Republican Ralph Flanders’ heroic stand against Joe McCarthy during the Red Scare. It also chronicles how emigrĂ©s from urban areas, “back-to- the-landers” like Helen and Scott Nearing and Nora Jacobson’s father came to Vermont in search of an alternative lifestyle.

Part Three, called Refuge, Reinvention and Revolution, begins in the mid-20th century, with political pioneers like Bill Meyer, a Congressman who challenged the Cold War, and Gov. Phil Hoff, whose 1962 victory set the stage for change. Innovation is reflected in the work of “talented tinkerers,” the rise of IBM, and the creation of the Interstate highways. But we see both the pros and cons, along with the high price of “eminent domain.”

Revolution was also in the air, and rare archival footage in Part Three provides a vivid look at the "hippies," the realities of communal life, and the paths of members of the counter-culture who established roots.

Titled Doers and Shapers, Part Four explores people and institutions that have pushed boundaries. Starting with education, it takes viewers on an engrossing journey through the philosophy of John Dewey, then to the hands-on style of Goddard College, the Putney School, and the inseparable connection between education and democracy. Exploring other progressive movements, Vermont’s billboard law, Act 250 and Bread and Puppet Theater, it concluded with touching moments from Vermont’s groundbreaking move toward gay marriage.

Part Five – Ceres’ Children – provides a deeper look at some of Vermont’s cherished traditions: participatory democracy and the conservation ethic, moving from the ideas of early environmentalist George Perkins Marsh to contemporary volunteer groups and movements.

Here The Vermont Movie captures 21st century debates over natural resources, then circles back in time to show how these concerns originate in the ethics of farmers, who depended on the natural world for their survival. The disappearance of dairy farms has raised tough questions explored in the film: How big is too big? How can Vermont survive in a world economy? And can it be a model for small, local and self-sufficient farming?

The final installment is called People’s Power, and tackles contemporary tensions over energy, independence, the environment and the state’s future. Chronicling the struggle to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, it shows the power of protest, the influence of lobbyists and the importance of town meeting debate and a citizen legislature. It also follows the battle over windmills in Lowell—a struggle over scale, aesthetics and environmental impacts—and explores thorny questions about economics, sovereignty and climate change.

Toward the end, the devastating impacts of Hurricane Irene reveal the power not only of nature, but of people and community.

Prior to this production Jacobson’s directorial credits included Delivered Vacant, a documentary exploration of gentrification in Hoboken, and two independent features, My Mother’s Early Lovers and Nothing Like Dreaming, both shot in Vermont. 

Early in the evolution of The Vermont Movie, Jacobson opted for an ambitious, collaborative approach. Each filmmaker or team could pick one or more topics to develop, with periodic opportunities to share work in progress with peers and discuss how various segments could relate to the film’s overarching focus – Vermont’s independent spirit over the centuries.

As originally submitted early segments varied widely in style and content, and also left significant gaps in the story. But as more sequences were shot, dozens of interviews conducted, and rare old footage was rediscovered Jacobson ultimately evolved an approach that is original, unifying and evocative.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Seeing Through Perception Management


The jury in Kristina’s Berster's case went out on a Monday afternoon in mid-October. By the following day it was obvious that a verdict would not come easily. The jurors in Burlington were snagged on two issues: her fear and the justification for her actions. Had sneaking across the border been necessary to avoid West German repression? They couldn't decide, and looked to the judge for guidance.

Local protest in the late 70s
on the right, Bernie Sanders
Facing the possibility of a hung jury on the third day of deliberations, Judge Coffrin called them back and read an expanded definition of the "necessity defense." Fear of harm, he said, could only be a defense if the harm would follow immediately. Having a gun to your head, or facing a tiger, would be enough. But just having a tiger in the neighborhood was no excuse for crossing a border illegally.

Even that didn't settle it. The jury was still stuck. They asked about conspiracy and listened to testimony excerpts. By Friday afternoon they’d broken Vermont's record for the length of a jury deliberation.

The verdict, finally delivered by the exhausted group at sundown on October 27, 1978 was a felony and misdemeanor conviction. But Kristina was acquitted on the conspiracy charge. 

US Attorney William Gray didn't consider that a victory. The jurors had sent a message through their mixed verdict that they were looking for a way to acquit her. Thwarted in court, Gray went to the press. Breaking the agreement he had made earlier, he revealed that Kristina once lived in South Yemen. While forced to admit this didn't prove she was a terrorist, he suggested that it did tend to disprove her innocence of terrorist affiliations. 

Faced with partial defeat, he had returned to a desperate line of defense -- guilt by association. Presumably, he also understood the potential impact of such a last-minute revelation: a renewed crackdown in West Germany, where the press and authorities were watching and viewed South Yemen as a terrorist training ground.

And so, the trial ended as it began, with front page headlines and twisted facts. Kristina remained a pawn of governments, imprisoned without bail, interrogated by agents from two continents, and labeled by both to justify extreme tactics. In Vermont, the rhetoric had softened. But beyond the state line the smear campaign rolled on. 

In New York City, a banner headline the day after Berster's conviction trumpeted, "No Asylum for Terrorist." That’s how perception management works: When in doubt, just keep on lying.

But the story doesn't end here. First of all, the jury had reached other conclusions. Some members said afterward that they found Kristina's situation compelling and expressed hope that a guilty verdict on minor charges wouldn’t prevent her from winning asylum. The following February, the Judge sentenced her to a nine month jail term, all but two weeks of which she’d already served.

Remarking that her story of persecution and flight was credible, Judge Coffrin called for leniency.

It was a strange turn of events, leading some of us to think she might soon be free. But that was not to be. The Immigration and Naturalization Service immediately began deportation proceedings.

By this time, Berster was rightly skeptical that the US would allow her to stay, particularly not as long as it meant defying a close ally. At the time no one represented US interests in Europe more forcefully than the Federal Republic of Germany. From monetary policy and trade to the stationing of nuclear missiles, Germany was to Western Europe what Iran, until the Shah fled, was to the Persian Gulf – a regional policeman. But Germany had committed itself to a policy of "counterterrorism" that threatened civil liberties.

As the 1970s ended, repression was being legalized globally. After the kidnapping of Aldo Moro produced a NATO alert throughout Europe, Germany took the lead, but other countries, including the US, followed suit with their own commando units and "grassroots" networks of spies.

In such a world, what to make of the Kristina Berster case? In one sense, it was a matter of human rights. Victimized by shifting international politics, a student activist whose only crime was crossing a border to seek asylum had spent almost two years in prison, in Germany and then the US. 

But there was more to it than that. Berster's case demonstrated how a campaign against terrorism can easily go off the rails, threatening anyone who actively tries to change the way society is run – from civil libertarians and prison reformers to anti-nuclear protesters and feminists. Across the country, despite claims that the days of COINTEL were over, reports were surfacing – harassment, covert agents provoking violence in nonviolent groups, wiretapping, political grand juries, and intrusive surveillance. As the 1970s wound down a chill was setting in, and terrorism was becoming an excuse for virtually any tactic the government found effective.

Going home in late 1979, Kristina Berster was freed when the original charges against her were dropped. A "complex arrangement" was worked out between the two governments, making it possible for her to voluntarily return without a deportation order.

But her US stay had revealed a few things -- for example, that officials, working in and with intelligence agents, were ready to lie in court and sanction illegal surveillance, and that some media could be used to distribute rumors and falsehoods; The evidence remained circumstantial, but it also looked like Vermont had witnessed the manufacturing of a terrorist scare, an attempt to warp public perceptions for political gain. The FBI had lied, so had the prosecutor. Anyone who supported the defendant was targeted for surveillance. Then there was the simulated terrorist "siege."

In essence, it looked like a concerted effort to influence public opinion, what would soon be labeled "perception management" in a Defense Department manual. Basically, this tactic involves both conveying and denying information "to influence emotions, motives, and objective reasoning." The goal is to influence both enemies and friends, ultimately to provoke the behavior you want. "Perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover and deception, and psychological operations," according to DOD.

In the Reagan years this type of operation was euphemistically labeled "public diplomacy," which was officially expanded to include domestic disinformation during the Bush I administration. In those days it was mostly about stoking fear of communism, the Sandinistas, Qaddafi, and anyone else on Reagan's hit list. Clinton modifications were outlined in Directive 68, which still showed no distinction between what could be done abroad and at home. When Bush II took office, the name was changed again, this time to "strategic influence." 

Covering such stories can have costs, like being watched, losing your job, or much worse. In this case, at least the true story did get out in progressive publications, although The Village Voice bought it, then sent a kill fee at the last minute. Columnist Alex Cockburn told me there were two reasons: an ownership change at the paper, and a red flag over the suggestion that Andreas Baader might have been murdered in jail.

Back in Burlington, Jim Martin, the editor who fired me, lasted only a few months himself, Before the end of the year I was back, this time as co-editor. More important, a government "perception management" campaign had been attempted -- but had basically failed. Somehow, enough people around Vermont had seen through the haze.

Two years later, Burlington elected a socialist mayor.

Greg Guma's new novel, Dons of Time, will be published in October by Fomite Press. For more information on Perception Management, please look at Projected Censored 2008: Media and Mass Consciousness in an Age of Misinformation.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Fear Factors: Staging Terrorism for the Cameras

The Berster Case, Part Five

From the start Kristina Berster’s case was handled with an eye for its propaganda value. She gave no statements and just one pre-trial interview, yet US officials and outlets felt free to label her dangerous, capable of virtually anything if released on bail. Even in the hands of expert jailers, they suggested, the risks were real and large.

Initially, most journalists presented the official version without asking many questions. After all, some of the government's actions did appear to support it. Why else the unique security arrangements, the high bail, a 24-hour guard for the judge, metal detectors, and armed officers on the courthouse roof? But the security was so intense that local reporters eventually began to focus on that. In most of the country the mere threat of terrorism was convincing enough to make any precautions sound reasonable. But once some Vermont journalists directly observed the defendant, a small, fair-haired woman with a mild demeanor and open smile, the security procedures began to look like overkill.

As the coverage began to shift and some reporters reconsidered their early assumptions, the general public also began to give the case a second look. Reports described Berster as a fugitive, an activist, or simply as a West German charged with border violations. Some headlines referred to her on a first name basis. Yesterday's terrorist was beginning to look like a human being, one who might even be innocent -- at least of a terrorism charge.

Favorable coverage, with headlines like "Berster Says She Wanted to Start a New Life Here," did not mesh well with the scenario mapped out the previous July. But the intelligence community had other ways to reinforce fear and justify their position. On the day Kunstler tried to subpoena FBI Director Webster, for example, a "confidential memorandum" was selectively released by the Burlington Police Department to UPI. New information had been forwarded to the police by the US Marshall, who apparently received it from the Bureau.

The memo warned that two Colombian terrorists were expected to attend the trial, and potentially disrupt it. Security throughout the city was tightened, and experts flew in from New Orleans and New York. The latest "threat" hit the press simultaneously with the Webster subpoena, reinforcing the idea that foreign terrorism loomed over the Green Mountains. But nothing and no one materialized.

That ploy was small potatoes when compared with the "simulation" staged the following week: A live-action terrorist siege, complete with bank robbery, hostages and a SWAT-style police unit called the Threat Management Team. Just as Kristina took the witness stand for her third and final day, the performing "terrorists" made their escape from the Chittenden Bank and fled to the Follett House, an historic building overlooking the city's waterfront. This photo was taken during the “exercise.” 

Local "threat managers" arrived promptly, provoking "fire" from the "terrorists" as bewildered bystanders tried to understand what was happening. Was it real, or had they stumbled on a new action movie in production?

Police fired convincing blanks as the “terrorists” held their hostages in the cupola of the old building. Negotiations between the cops and robbers continued into early afternoon, following the common real-life pattern. The bad guys were ultimately "talked out." But by this time news of the exercise and attendant media coverage had reached the courtroom.

Judge Coffrin was "fit to be tied," said a clerk, and warned jurors to avoid all news media that evening – especially TV.

At 6 p.m. Bill Felling, a newsman with the local CBS affiliate, read his account of the siege. The tone was light, but he labeled the event a "terrorist" exercise. The coverage included action-packed footage, made possible by the advance warning provided to the area's largest TV station.

The previous evening a WCAX reporter had taken a call from Sergeant Kevin Scully, a local specialist in security. Scully provided the tip that the station could get a great story if a camera crew showed up at precisely 10 a.m.

Once Felling finished his report, anchorman Mickey Gallagher turned to the next item – the Berster trial. Juxtaposing a "terrorist incident" and the trial of a "suspected terrorist" was as reasonable as it was tasteless. The local daily newspaper followed suit. The next day the B-section of the Burlington Free Press carried four prominent photos of the "siege" beside two Berster stories. The main head, "Berster Testimony Refuted," described not only the court action but the impact of the media event.

I no longer needed much to stimulate suspicion by this point. Those sympathetic to the defendant were obviously being watched. There had even been an unsolved break-in at the house being used by the Defense Committee. When I flew to New York to speak about the case or conduct research, the first familiar face in the airport terminal was usually a US Marshall who handled security at the trial.

"What brings you to the city?" I asked as I passed him one day. "Just waiting," he mumbled.

Many of Berster's supporters quickly came to believe that the Follett House siege was purposely staged to coincide with the trial. But it might also be an unfortunate coincidence. To find out which, it would be necessary to follow the advice Deep Throat gave Watergate reporter Bob Woodward: "Follow the money."

The trail began with then-Sergeant Scully, the local cop who turned up whenever activists gathered. He denied what he could, and claimed that the date of the event was determined locally. But that contradicted the normal protocol, in which the US Army Corps of Engineers set the date.

Scully did admit at least one thing: there had been a last-minute change in the timing. Originally, the siege was set for July 20, but was canceled due to "conflicting commitments" of local team members. It was already sounding fishy. Berster had been arrested four days before.

How was the final date selected? Scully claimed that decision was made in August. But Colonel Patrick Dalager, Provost Marshall of the New England Corps of Engineers, remembered it differently. "They scheduled it during the first week in September," he recalled. As the person who ran the training, he was in a position to know. Dalager was an FBI academy graduate and co-author of the Army's manual on "terrorism directed against the military." His basic argument was that local police agencies were the only means of protecting Army Corps projects from vandalism, terrorism, or other kinds of violence.

Dalager was candid about the funding source, although he insisted that the juxtaposition of the exercise and the trial was purely coincidental. The money, he explained, came from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which had been funding programs to protect corporate facilities from potential terrorists since the early 1970s. LEAA also managed the computerized storage of intelligence information, helping to end a long tradition of federal non-involvement in local law enforcement.

And so, LEAA, part of the post-COINTEL "terrorist control" network, provided seed money for the siege, enlisting local police to play terrorists for the local press. Meanwhile, the FBI leaked rumors of a possible terrorist attack by South Americans. The casual consumer of news might well assume that the two were related. And if not, the mere threat of violence was enough to justify intensified security measures.

How far did it go? Was the FBI's terrorist simulation a device to reinforce the anti-nuclear terrorist scenarios being promoted by LEAA and their private sector partners? Was anyone who defended Kristina considered a potential terrorist by association? Did anti-terrorism preparedness include manufacturing threats? That wasn't possible to prove, but reports of surveillance and infiltration were accumulating across the country.

In any case, Burlington reality was being skewed by the government's terrorist narrative. Like the scare created by Orson Wells' War of the Worlds, the local "siege" looked authentic enough for some people to complete a circuit of fear and suspicion. The Berster case was certainly real, the FBI did claim she was a terrorist, and the local media said terrorists were on the way to town. So, why not a violent robbery and hostage taking?

As the list of coincidences grew, the government's ability to mold mass perceptions looked more formidable than ever. Yet not all the media was playing ball anymore. Immediately after the verdict, one daily paper ran an editorial in support of Kristina's plea for political asylum. Another printed an ironic cartoon. These breaks with conventional wisdom, despite planted stories and disinformation, reflected a basic change in attitudes. Originally, most newspapers reported news about Kristina Berster as if she was guilty before trial. Now they were telling a different story.

In the editorial cartoon, Berster stood before Judge Coffrin. The caption had the judge saying, "Will the dangerous terrorist – I mean, the defendant – step forward and tell the court why she can't get a fair trial." It was an apt satire, but at this stage not enough to counteract months of disinformation. 

Greg Guma's new novel, Dons of Time, will be published in October by Fomite Press. Next in this story, the verdict and the lessons.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Legalized Repression and the Therapeutic State

The Berster Case, Part Four

Kristina Berster in 1979
When Kristina Berster arrived in Heidelburg to study in 1970, German young people were restless and angry. The rhetoric had turned revolutionary since the days of "Ban the Bomb." This paralleled the trajectory of American dissent. The US "New Left" had also passed a tipping point, marked by the Chicago police riots and the "days of rage" that launched the Weather Underground.

In West Germany, protest turned violent with demonstrations in Berlin and the bombing of two empty department stores by Andreas Baader and Gudrin Ensslin. The purpose of the bombing, announced Baader, was "to light a beacon" against the consumer society. "We set fires in department stores so you will stop buying," added Ensslin. "The compulsion to buy terrorizes you." An incomplete analysis, it nevertheless struck at the core of German complacency in a time of intensive economic development.

The couple and some accomplices were caught and convicted, but not before they found support from one of Germany's leading leftist journalists, Ulrike Meinhof. Released in 1969 during the appeal of their cases, Baader and Ensslin went underground with Meinhof's assistance. On September 29, 1970, with the robbing of three West Berlin banks, the Red Army Faction was born. 

To justify the tactic, Baader explained that the first problem of the revolution was financial support.

Dark clouds began to descend. West German police turned to automatic weapons and extreme tactics, anyone who looked like a nonconformist risked spontaneous interrogation, roadblocks became common on the autobahn, and new search, arrest, and gun laws were passed. The excuse for such a broad extension of police powers was the nationwide search for the Baader-Meinhof group. It didn't matter that the fugitives were responsible for only five of the 1,000 robberies committed during their heyday.

Witnessing the isolation of prisoners and the alienation around her, Berster couldn't accept it. She was already steeped in politics and radical concepts of therapy. One US thinker who exerted a strong influence, Thomas Szasz, had written about the "myth of mental illness" and the emergence of a therapeutic state. He also inspired William Pierce, the mathematician who shared his story of harassment and involuntary commitment after blowing the whistle about security procedures and high-tech repression.

In Law, Liberty and Psychiatry Szasz proposed, "The parallel between political and moral fascism is close. Each offers a kind of protection. And upon those unwilling to heed peaceful persuasion, the values of the state will be imposed by force: in political fascism by the military and the police; in moral fascism by therapists, especially psychiatrists."

Berster was fascinated by the critique of institutional psychiatry, and simultaneously repelled by German psychiatric units where patients had no rights and anything could be interpreted as crazy. A new criminal psychiatric unit was under construction in Heidelburg, geared toward mind control and the use of complete isolation. During the dispute over it, someone tried to set fire to the site.

The violence escalated with the shooting of several police officers. In response, the government widened its dragnet to root out the conspiracy. Help came from an informer, Hans Bacchus, who had read books on guerrilla warfare before leaving the student scene. He subsequently supplied the police with a list of people he accused of radical activity or terrorist sympathies. Among the names was Kristina’s.

Apprehended as a suspect, she was charged with having "built up a criminal association." The maximum sentence was five years. But even pre-trial detention could mean serious time. Some suspects were already being detained in solitary for long periods. It was exactly the type of treatment she had been protesting.

Berster spent the next six months in detention, watching the erosion of her right to legal counsel. Even her lawyer's office was raided. Police alleged that Eberhard Becker had photographic files of the Heidelburg police department's employees. Although the evidence was never produced, he was barred from participating in her trial. Obstruction of justice charges were later leveled at two other attorneys representing defendants in the case.

A pattern of harassment aimed at defense attorneys was emerging. The pressure intensified with laws that permitted the exclusion of lawyers and the holding of trials without the presence of defendants. In reaction, some young people joined the Red Army Faction. 

Kristina went back to school, but continued her prison reform work.

In early May 1971, the Red Army decided to strike at political targets in retaliation for the bomb blockade of North Vietnam. They hit an officer's club in Frankfurt, the Augsburg Police Department, the parking lot of the State Criminal Investigation Office, and finally, on May 24, the US Army's European Supreme Headquarters in Heidelburg. A month later they were caught. 

At first, people thought the country would finally return to normal, easing attacks on civil liberties and ending the state of emergency. Instead, the "emergency" was institutionalized.

Red Army leaders were locked in "wipe-out detention," a luminous white world of total sterility in which fluorescent lights were always on and every window was covered. Their soundproof cells, filled with nothing but white noise, were in a section of the prison called the Dead Wing, a place off limits to all visitors except lawyers and relatives. Reading material was heavily censored, and other prisoners were never seen or even heard. 

When Jean-Paul Sartre saw Baader after two years in the Dead Wing, he said, "This is not torture like the Nazis. It is torture meant to bring on psychic disturbances."

This type of confinement was "the most effective way to destroy personality irreversibly,” Kristina told me during our jailhouse interview. "Humans are social. When you cut that off, when people are not able to talk or relate to others, an internal destruction begins. You become catatonic, and somatic problems begin."

Despite the growing risks, she continued to fight for small improvements like allowing prisoners to see and hear one another. But reforms faced new obstacles. Not only had public sentiment hardened against the Red Army; the Right, prodded by the Springer newspaper chain, had pushed through more repression laws. A Decree on Radicals, passed in 1972, denied "a position of civil service...if the candidate has been politically active in either an extreme rightist or leftist group." Any doubt about a person's support for the "free democratic basic order" would henceforth be sufficient grounds for blacklisting. It was an effective job ban in a country with 16 percent of workers in this sector.

The Decree also permitted the executive branch to create political isolation without directly banning political parties. Instead, it created a category of "constitutional enemies." Acts no longer had to be proven; the job ban punished attitudes, and the enemies list extended to "sympathizers" who were indifferent to or critical of the state's war on terrorism.

A prominent target was Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Boll, who had criticized the demagoguery of the Springer press. Conservatives tried to ban his books, and the police harassed his son. His hate mail was signed, he once noted sardonically, while complimentary notes were apt to be anonymous.

Kristina Berster and her co-defendants became convinced that a fair trial was impossible. There was ample evidence that the outcome was rigged: exclusion orders against their lawyers, the treatment of prisoners, new laws, and Right-Wing propaganda. Therefore, in an open letter to the court they announced that they weren't showing up, and would instead hold a counter-trial at which they could present themselves for judgment. A huge audience, gathering from across Western Europe, attended that event. But many people left confused. 

Disagreement had erupted over the use of violence. Many people were attracted, but Berster rejected the idea. Nevertheless, persuaded that the official trial could not be just, she joined those who decided not to appear.

At first she didn't believe she would have to become a fugitive. But when "wanted" posters went up it was clear that she would not be free for long if she stayed in West Germany. By 1973 the national mood was grim, much akin to the repressive climate of the Nixon era, when the anti-war movement cracked and the country continued to reel from politically-motivated assassinations. By the time Bacchus, the informer whose testimony had originally implicated her, had recanted, she was out of the city, living on the edge, cut off from family and friends.

Perhaps leaving had been a mistake, she thought. But it was too late to turn back.

Five years later, while Berster was in Montreal looking for a way into the US, a German lawyer was being convicted of "conspiracy" for assisting his clients to maintain their identities. Kurt Groenwold, who had defended Red Army Faction leaders during the intervening years, was sentenced to two years in jail because his assistant had provided support for the suspects. Defending "enemies of the state" in anything but a perfunctory manner had become grounds for a conspiracy charge.

It was the first in a series of similar cases. The court had rejected Groenwold's argument that his clients had the right to determine the nature of their own defense. Such a defense, ruled the court, would "promote the ideas of the defendants." Those ideas were too dangerous to be heard.

The crackdown on left-leaning lawyers was no surprise. German attorneys had already been disbarred and indicted on similar charges. This served as a major incentive for Bill Kunstler to take Kristina’s case after she was caught attempting to enter the US. Groenwold's conviction reminded him of what had happened to Kristina's first attorney.

After an early attempt to disbar lawyers in 1971, the federal parliament had passed amendments pointedly labeled "Lex Baader-Meinhof." They provided prosecutors with legal grounds to bar overly-aggressive lawyers, to limit the number of lawyers on a case, and to exclude defendants from their own trials if the court believed that "they willfully caused their own unfitness."

On March 11, 1975, Groenwold was excluded from the Baader-Meinhof trial. Three months later he was disbarred. He had "only been disbarred," he thought, "perhaps because of my wealthy family associations...I have been lucky for now." But criticism of the constitution or government had become a crime, and lawyers could now be jailed for objecting to prison conditions.

"Always the so-called liberals and social democrats come to power and make the state bigger and more powerful," noted Groenwold. "They think that if they do the work of the fascists, then the fascists will never come to power. But always, the fascists eventually come to power and then the social democrats are arrested by the very policemen they hired."

In 1978, the Bertrand Russell Tribunal concluded that constitutional rights in Germany were being seriously eroded by repressive laws, censorship, and a job ban. Perhaps those chilling effects were the price of Germany's preoccupation with order. In any case, dissent was no longer to be tolerated. The prescription for social crisis was prior censorship, confiscations, blacklisting, detention, the Radical Decree, and much more.

There was also an unanticipated side effect: a new generation of terrorists. Even Andreas Baader, who had been locked up for five years by the time former SS official Hans Martin Schleyer was murdered, disapproved of such actions. On the eve of Baader’s own mysterious death from gunshot wounds, he told a chancellery official that he had never approved of, and would never approve of, terrorism in its current form of brutal actions against uninvolved citizens.

By this time, however, both the state and its enemies had gone beyond symbolic bombings and police riots. Despite protests from former Red Army supporters that terrorism provided an excuse for more repression, the violence of the new generation continued, capturing the imagination of some disaffected young people. Danny Cohn-Bendit, who had moved to Germany from France after the 1968 student uprising there, concluded that the Germany Left was trapped in a battle that was a product of German society itself.

None of this, of course, made it into the record during the Berster trial. It was one of several ironies in her situation. Rejecting the violence that had enveloped her homeland, she had left Germany only to be haunted by its specter, then exploited by the US intelligence community to justify excessive counter-terrorist tactics. 

Guilt by association was clearly a cheap shot. But it made good copy, and provided a flexible excuse for almost anything in response.

Greg Guma's new book, Dons of Time, will be published in October by Fomite Press. Next in this story, a simulated siege and following the counter-terror money.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

When Dissent Becomes a Crime

The Berster Case, Part Three

In a courtroom crowded with supporters and gadflies, reporters and government minders, Kristina Berster took the witness stand on a Tuesday in October, 1978. After remaining silent for three months, the alleged "terrorist" suspect was about to present a defense.

She had attempted to cross the border from Canada prompted by a mixture of fear and hope. She'd been seeking refuge from a "counter-terrorist" fever in her homeland. "I wanted to start a new life," she said, "to live openly once again, to have a legal existence. I was no longer able to go on with life underground."

As a student at the University of Heidelberg almost a decade before she had been part of the anti-war movement and joined an alternative therapy project. The purpose of the Socialist Patients Collective was to "find out the reasons why people feel lonely, isolated and depressed and the circumstances which caused these problems," she explained. But in June 1971, as a political crackdown on dissent swept West Germany, members of the group were accused of criminal association, based on the testimony of a police informer who later recanted.

Kristina spent six months in detention, including three months in solitary confinement. In 1972, she was finally released. But a year later she faced another trial. At this point she went underground and left the country. The next years were spent in Holland, North Africa, the Middle East, and France. But after German industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer, a former SS official by the way, was killed after a kidnapping she realized that it wasn't safe for her in Europe either. 

After the death of Aldo Moro in Italy leaving felt like a matter of survival. In May 1978, Stern magazine, Germany's version of Life, printed the pictures of 34 "most wanted terrorist suspects." Kristina made the list.

"Everyone arrested as an alleged terrorist is detained for between two and three years in complete isolation," she told the court. Before she could say more, however, the prosecution objected, the testimony was stricken, and the judge banned further statements on the political aspects of the case.

US Attorney William Gray's cross examination had a different objective. By using phone logs, asking why she decided to leave Europe, and digging into the origins of her fake passport, he was searching for prior contact with the New York City boutique owner who had helped her reach the US border. The questions pointed to a hidden conspiracy; in other words, support for the FBI scenario.

Since this "simple border case" was really a vehicle to expose a plot linking foreign terrorists and US activists, conviction on a minor border violation wouldn't be enough.

During her second day on the stand Kristina explained that her instructions on how to get into the US had come from Chilean refugees living in Paris. This intrigued Gray. But he was even more eager to know where she had lived during her underground years, a line of inquiry she and her lawyers hoped to avoid. Since she had stayed in Libya and South Yemen, Middle East countries out of favor with the US, her answers might prejudice the jury. Taking the Fifth, on the other hand, would undermine her credibility.

The judge urged the lawyers to strike a deal. The countries would henceforth simply be known as A and B, and Berster would simply admit that she had felt safe during the time she spent there.

On re-direct Bill Kunstler probed her decision to leave France -- not just where and who, but why. But the answer was blocked. Neither Gray nor the judge wanted testimony about her fear of persecution.

"Mr. Gray opened that door," snapped Kunstler. "No, he hasn't," the judge shot back. They were close to the confrontation that had looked inevitable since the opening moments.

A day earlier, Kunstler had issued a warning when Coffrin let Gray ask about her underground years. "All right, Judge. You are opening it," Kunstler said. 

"I am not controlling this," the judge replied. A strange admission.

"All right, as long as you are on notice that now we are going full blast," Kunstler countered. To which the judge replied hotly, "You may not be allowed to go full blast." That, too, was a warning.

Kunstler shifted to another line of questioning. Why didn't Kristina think it was wrong to enter the country secretly? It was a direct extension of questions Gray had asked, but he objected anyway.

Kunstler prowled the chamber, flashing angry glances at the prosecutor and the judge. Circling the prosecution table he returned to the podium and pounded on his notes. "I want to get to her state of mind, and why she thought she was not wrong."

Coffrin wouldn't budge: No testimony on West Germany would be admitted. Kunstler was boiling mad. Shouting, he charged that the judge had ruled consistently against the defense. If the jury had been watching, that outburst might have brought a contempt citation. But they’d been herded out earlier. 

A decade after the Chicago 8 trial, Kunstler had not lost his ability to provoke. This time around, his powerful yet studied rage led to a private conference in which the judge merely reamed him out for "impugning" the integrity of the court.

By the following day, Coffrin's attitude had softened a bit. Kristina would be allowed to explain why she felt that her actions hadn't been wrong. "I had been accused, originally, unjustly of things I had not done," she explained. "I was wanted for associating with people suspected of terrorism, and I knew that other people suspected and in jail had died under mysterious circumstances."

Gray objected but the testimony continued. About lying to border officials, she said, "I was afraid of being detained, checked out. If police agents found out I would be deported right away and I wouldn't get to contact lawyers and ask for asylum." 

But why pick the US.? "I spoke the language," she said. "It had customs and culture similar to Europe. I thought the US was independent of Germany. I thought I could find understanding and support for my situation, since this country has a long tradition of accepting refugees."

When she stepped from the witness stand the defense rested its case. But there was so much more she hadn't been permitted to say.

Next: Cracking down on freedom, off the record in Germany

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Surveillance Lies and Compromised Justice

The Kristina Berster Case, Part Two

Bill Kunstler charged that most Vermonters in the US District Court where Kristina Berster was scheduled for trial had been "irreparably prejudiced by publicity identifying her as a suspected West German terrorist," announced a UPI report on Sept. 19, 1978.

Bill Kunstler at the Berster trial
As a result Kunstler had asked federal Judge Albert Coffrin to dismiss the case against the 28-year-old defendant, who was facing eight counts for attempting to enter the United States illegally in July. And to buttress his claim of prejudicial pretrial publicity, added UPI, "Kunstler put Burlington journalist Greg Guma on the stand to testify that newspapers, television and radio stations in Chittenden County consistently have identified Miss Berster as a member of a terrrorist gang."

By the time the trial officially began I could also report -- when not on the stand as a defense motion witness -- that the security force at the federal building was ready for a siege. US Marshalls, security specialists and assorted agents roamed the five floors of the downtown building with walkie-talkies. Packages and handbags weren't permitted into the courtroom, and no one except the lawyers could speak with the now-famous defendant.

After a week of jury selection the air was thick with intrigue. US Attorney William Gray insisted that he was merely prosecuting a simple border case, but one in which the bail was set at $500,000. Kunstler shot back that the issues were far from simple and the FBI was very much involved.

The legendary lawyer had taken the case pro bono within a few weeks of Berster’s arrest. Known for defending political dissidents, he saw it as a significant battle: a defendant seeking political asylum from a country that had been indicting even "radical" lawyers. "This case goes far beyond Kristina Berster," Kunstler said. "I am very concerned with West Germany's treatment of so-called terrorists and the so-called left wing lawyers who defend them."

By late September he and other attorneys, along with headquarters for the Berster Defense Committee, were installed in the Maple Street home I shared with two friends. There we underwent a quick course in courtroom dynamics and Kunstler's blend of legal jujitsu and theatrics. So compelling were the issues, and so high the stakes, that I began to devote most of my time to the case.

In response I was laid off. Rather than welcoming "insider" coverage of the state's hottest story, Vanguard Press Editor Jim Martin rejected it. Fortunately, I was able to file daily for a national radio audience via WBAI and the Pacifica network. 

Perhaps it was a case of late-blooming naivete, but I wasn't much focused at first on the possible consequences. Thus, I didn't fully consider how the Justice Department and intelligence community might react to growing support for the defendant. In fact, when the US attorney claimed that no local surveillance had been initiated, I actually leaned toward believing him. 

Three years later we found out that he had been less than candid.

From Berster's first appearance in court, it turns out, the FBI conducted an intensive covert investigation of her allies and supporters. The operation’s code name was TERCROSS; the tactics included stake outs and surreptitious photography (at the very least), along with follow up long after the trial ended. FBI documents subsequently obtained by members of the Defense Committee showed that the case provided a pretext to continue and extend surveillance of the local left, which had begun years before. After exposure just the official line changed: TERCROSS had been launched, revised the Bureau, to trace links between Vermont activists and "foreign terrorists."
Defense Team: Bill Kunstler,
Jesse Berman, Dennis Schlenker

Among other things, those Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents revealed that the US Attorney personally approved surveillance during the trial, as long as it was handled discreetly "and without detection." According to the FBI's analysts, it was necessary because some of Kristina's supporters may have known her prior to her arrival from Europe. One memo indicated that the FBI told the US Marshall and local police about a possible link between the Defense Committee and "terrorist activity in the United States."

TERCROSS was later merged with another project, GILROB, the label for a years old bank robbery investigation. Gray was advised "that special agents from Boston division would be traveling to Burlington for the purpose of observing and possibly photographing Kristina Berster supporters present at the trial." Maybe he was under pressure. In any case, he voiced no reservations and merely urged secrecy.

During the trial we had no proof that surveillance was underway. All Kunstler could do was ask to subpoena FBI Director Webster, a maneuver that didn't impress the judge. After eight days in court just to reach the point of the opening statements, Judge Coffrin was impatient. He looked not at the lawyers but at the clock.

"Something happened before July 20," Kunstler blustered. He was talking about the media campaign launched with Webster's press conference. "The FBI was up to something," he charged. "If the jury found out that the FBI pursued this case on the basis of an agreement with a foreign government, they could acquit the defendant."

The normally calm prosecutor was equally adamant. Gray reminded the judge that Kunstler often used the FBI as a "whipping boy." He had successfully made a similar argument to prevent West German experts and US lawyers from testifying about conditions in Germany. "If selective prosecution is tried before this jury, then Assistant US Attorney O'Neill and I would have to testify," Gray argued. "Really, the FBI has no significance on the issues involved."

Kunstler took another tack. "Mr. Gray says this is like all other cases," he reminded. "He made this a jury issue in his opening statement. We have the right to rebut, and we need to determine what went on. Who did Webster talk to, and what did the Germans want?"

"It was my decision to prosecute," Gray protested. 

Kunstler shot back, "Your honor, this may have been beyond Mr. Gray's control." 

But Coffrin wasn’t swayed. After a lunch break he denied Kunstler's subpoena request without explanation. 

Greg Guma's new book, Dons of Time, will be published in October by Fomite Press. Coming up in this report, the "terrrorist" tells her tale, the government strikes back.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Scare Tactics: Counter-terror and the Berster Case

By Greg Guma

Preventing violence. It's a basic goal of law enforcement, and if the methods are legal and ethical, actions intended to prevent potentially violent activities raise few fundamental questions. But when governments go beyond that, when they target people or groups for their views, associations, or criticisms of government policies, they cross the constitutional line.

In a 1969 US Supreme Court case, Brandenberg v. Ohio, the majority made it clear: The government can’t legally "forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or law violation except where such advocacy is directed toward inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action." In other words, without a "clear and present danger," suppressing speech and punishing people for their associations are out of bounds.

By the time that ruling was issued, however, the federal government of the United States had been engaged in a covert program directed a domestic targets for years. In a 1976 report by the US Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations, the program known as COINTELPRO was described as "a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence." 

The dubious premise, explained the report, was that law enforcement must "do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order."

Possibly on those grounds, but clearly at the instigation of certain major corporations, the intelligence community actively infiltrated and spied on anti-nuclear activist groups in the late 1970s. By then I was already worried about the loose and misleading use of the word “terrorist.” But until I met Kristina Berster I had no idea just how far so-called anti-terrorist “preparedness” could go.

On July 3, 1978, my son Jesse was born, the most life-altering moment I'd ever experienced. Two weeks later, just back from a week covering stock car racing in Vermont, I heard that someone had been arrested crossing the border from Canada. The newspapers were calling her a terrorist.

The public first heard about Kristina Berster on July 20, about four days after her arrest. Attempting to cross into the US on foot, she’d become lost and been nabbed by a Customs agent. At first, the FBI knew only that she was a West German citizen wanted for something called "criminal association," a crime that did not exist in the US. The source of the charge was her previous membership in a radical therapy group, the Socialist Patients Collective. According to German authorities, some of its members may later have joined the notorious Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof group, a radical underground dedicated to armed struggle.

This stale, circumstantial evidence was enough to launch a nationwide terrorist scare. For FBI Director William Webster the arrest was a chance to buttress his claims that urban terrorism was on the rise, part of a push for more agents and expanded authority to investigate citizens who were "reasonably believed" to be involved in "potential" terrorist activities. So far, the requests had been denied. Instead, criticism of the Bureau was mounting as Congress discussed a charter to define and limit its activities.

Webster's July 20 press conference had a simple purpose: to announce that a foreign terrorist had been caught in a conspiracy with US citizens. Break out the duct tape! His remarks stopped short of calling Berster a member of Baader-Meinhof, but Bureau's press spokesmen quickly contacted their favorite reporters as off-the-record sources to provide additional details. The next morning newspapers across the country spread the news in bold headlines


Some accounts even printed an agent's speculation that Berster had come to Vermont in order to assassinate the president of BMW. After all, he was planning a visit to Rutland.

One of the first Vermont reporters contacted was Burlington Free Press reporter Mike Donoghue, who had excellent police contacts. He received a wake up call about the arrest early on July 20 and ripped some AP copy that directly called her a Baader-Meinhof member. When I asked him about the source of his story, Mike declined to say. But the managing editor of another Vermont daily, The Rutland Herald, revealed that FBI press officer Tom Harrington had fed the information to his reporter.

Harrington denied it. "We didn't put her with any group," he claimed. Nevertheless, most US newspapers that day called her a terrorist, using that loaded word without much hesitation. But the ruse could be maintained only for a short time. A week later, another FBI press official issued a low-key retraction. Although barely noticed, that statement admitted the Bureau had no evidence that Berster was a terrorist. 

The change in position had been forced on the FBI after West German officials issued their own statement, calling her a "fringe figure" whom they might not bother to extradite. In any case, she was now an illegal alien facing federal conspiracy charges.

By then I had become embroiled in the case. Several friends had formed a defense committee, and, in early August, I visited the Albany lockup to speak with the "terrorist" in person. What I heard was a tale of persecution and flight. The resulting cover feature was published in the “back to school” issue of the new Vermont Vanguard Press. The cover photo showed an intense young woman in shackles under heavy guard.

“Was Kristina Berster Tried and Convicted by a Prejudiced Press?” asked a cautiously provocative headline inside, above an investigative report that shared her side of the story and examined both the FBI's "disinformation" operation and the media's distribution of the distorted story.

But the Vanguard’s editor was worried that we might be going too far, and decided to hedge his bet with a disclaimer. Describing me as a member of the Defense Committee (not actually true), he noted that my story raised questions about "objectivity and conflict of interest." Fortunately, he concluded that objectivity is a myth, and that my "pro-Berster sentiments" did not prevent me from doing my job.

Still, my credibility was on the line and the FBI's manipulation of the media had proven effective. Kristina Berster might be technically innocent until proven guilty, but in the eyes of the public she was a terrorist until proven otherwise.

Greg Guma’s new novel, Dons of Time, which looks at the dangers of the surveillance state, was released in October 2013 by Fomite Press. In the next chapter of this story: Kunstler comes to court, Berster takes the stand