Now, I don’t really have a conspiratorial temperament. I tend to think that stupidity is responsible for far more of what ails the world than evil — which is why I’m more optimistic than many of my eco-brethren.

However, this seems worth worrying about. After all, as the old saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re really watching you.

Trying to drum up this sort of frenzy serves dual, overlapping purposes. One, it reignites some of the flagging terrorist hysteria that does so much to prop up the right wing, greasing the skids for a further expansion of domestic police powers. Two, it works to discredit the green movement as a whole, greasing the skids for further deregulation of corporate power.

At the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee show trial yesterday, they trotted an FBI flunky in to proclaim earnestly that the ELF and the ALF constitute the single greatest domestic terrorist threat the nation faces today. (* See correction below)

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The first thing to note, of course, is that both these organizations explicitly renounce violence against people and have been responsible for not a single death. Not one.

The second thing to note is that they are not "organizations" as such. They have no leaders, no central coordinating councils or locations. They are loosely affiliated cells, united by a cause. The feds might be able to bust this or that cell, but there’s no sense in which they could "defeat" these organizations.

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This gives the feds license for an unending, ever-escalating war — and really, what do the feds love more? They get greater surveillance latitude and any number of extra-judicial powers. After all, it’s terrorism!

But of course, it’s not really those organizations Inhofe is after anyway, is it?

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the panel’s chairman, said he hoped to examine more closely how the groups might be getting assistance in fund raising and communications from tax-exempt organizations’ "mainstream activists" not directly blamed for the violence.

"Just like al-Qaida or any other terrorist organization, ELF and ALF cannot accomplish their goals without money, membership and the media," Inhofe said.

Yes, let’s "examine more closely" the mainstream activists that give us such trouble. I can practically hear the Dr. Evil laugh here.

Make no mistake, this is what they want:

On the same day that the FBI warned a Congressional committee about the danger of "domestic terrorism," the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Wednesday accused the FBI of using terrorism as a pretext to spy on activists who "oppose the war in Iraq, the USA Patriot Act, and other government policies."

… the ACLU issued a statement that said “the FBI and local police are engaging in intimidation based on political association and are improperly investigating law-abiding human rights and advocacy groups.” The statement was based on information gathered from numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. The ACLU said it was filing a lawsuit in federal court to force the FBI to turn over “thousands of pages” of extra information that had been withheld. 

As a voice of sanity amidst all this madness, don’t miss ranking committee member Sen. James Jeffords’ (I-Vt.) statement on eco-terrorism:

I am puzzled why the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is examining the issue of animal rights and eco-terrorism since the Committee lacks jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement issues. Such matters are more appropriately addressed by the Judiciary or Homeland Security Committees. Nevertheless, I look forward to learning what the Environment Committee can do to address the problems posed by domestic terrorism.

For that reason, I am extremely disappointed that Congressman Bennie Thompson, the ranking member of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, has not been allowed to testify today. This violates basic congressional courtesy and Senate tradition. Moreover, based on his position as ranking on the Homeland Security Committee, his testimony would certainly have been relevant to this hearing on terrorism.

I’d like to submit for the record a report Congressman Thompson prepared, entitled – quote – "Ten Years After the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Department of Homeland Security Must Do More to Fight Right-Wing Domestic Terrorists." The report highlights the apparent failure of DHS to assess the threat posed by right-wing domestic terrorist groups in the Department’s five-year budget planning document. I share his concern that the Department of Homeland Security needs to protect us from all terrorist threats and should not focus on eco-terrorism at the expense of other domestic terrorist groups, such as the KKK, right wing militias, abortion bombers and skin heads.

In sum, Congress can’t do much about individual extremists committing crimes in the name of ELF or ALF, but we can act to significantly enhance the safety of communities across the nation. ELF and ALF may threaten dozens of people each year, but an incident at a chemical, nuclear or wastewater facility would threaten tens of thousands.

I expect we’ll be hearing much more about the dire threat posed by domestic terrorists in months and years to come, and I expect "eco-terrorists" will be the hook they’ll hang it on.

(It happens that I wrote a column about these matters.)

[CORRECTION]: As pointed out by dirtygreek in comments, this is not accurate. Though reported misleadingly in several accounts, the FBI agent — John E. Lewis, Deputy Assistant Director, Counterterrorism Division — actually called eco-terrorism “one of today’s most serious domestic terrorism threats,” not the most.

My larger point stands, I think, but consider my ass suitably fact-checked and chastened.)