Daniel McGowan: The FBI's Least Wanted

He did his time for burning down two Oregon lumber mills, but he's not exactly a free man

At six o'clock on a cool June morning, after five and a half years in federal prison and six months in a halfway house, Daniel McGowan went home. From the halfway house in Vinegar Hill, he took the F train to downtown Brooklyn, crawled into bed beside his wife, Jenny, and slept for a few hours. Then he headed out to meet his probation officer and a mountain of paperwork. It was his first day as a freed domestic terrorist.

"The definition of terrorism is exactly what they did."

"I was really horrified at the time of my sentencing at being called a terrorist," he says. "I'm still horrified."

At 39, McGowan is a little skinnier than before he went to prison, a little grayer. But he doesn't look too different from the guy who helped burn down two Oregon lumber mills on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front in 2001, or the guy a federal judge sentenced to seven years in prison for those crimes in 2007. On a recent evening, he's wearing a loose green T-shirt and several days' worth of stubble, a bike seat by his side and a smartphone in his hand. He glances at it every few minutes.

"I used to make fun of people who texted all the time," he says. "And now I'm one of them."

With a summer of freedom behind him, McGowan is still figuring out the rules of his new reality. Besides being a convicted terrorist, he owes nearly $2 million in restitution, which he's expected to pay in full. The peculiar terms of his probation forbid him joining "any groups or organizations whose primary purpose is environmental and animal rights activism"—a prohibition that includes nonprofits such as PETA and the Sierra Club. He can't associate with anyone with a felony on their record, or anyone convicted of illegal environmental or animal rights activity, even a misdemeanor—a tall order for a man who had spent much of his life in activist circles. And, as he learned in the halfway house, writing about his experiences in the prison system has the potential to land him back in jail.

McGowan says he left the ELF soon after the second Oregon arson. He was working at a nonprofit for victims of domestic abuse when he and 12 others were arrested during the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Operation Backfire, which ferreted out ELF members responsible for a series of arsons and other crimes between 1996 and 2001. Vandals targeted lumberyards, slaughterhouses, and U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service offices, wreaking a record $48 million worth of damage.

Several of those arrested agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. One ELF member secretly recorded conversations with McGowan, helping to convict him on several counts of arson and conspiracy—actions that, in the eyes of U.S. District Court Judge Ann L. Aiken, amounted to terrorism: attempts to create "fear and intimidation to achieve a goal and affect the conduct of government," as the judge put it at McGowan's sentencing.

Ten months into his prison term, McGowan was transferred from the general population at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minnesota, to a newer wing in Marion, Illinois, known as a Communication Management Unit. Much of the CMU population is Muslim, but politically affiliated prisoners such as McGowan also find themselves there. The main hallmark of a CMU is restricted contact with the outside world: McGowan was allowed two short, no-contact visits per month—he wasn't permitted to have any physical contact whatsoever with his wife for the duration of his sentence—and his phone time was limited to a single 15-minute phone call per week. (The BOP has subsequently revised the CMU limits to two 15-minute calls and two four-hour visits.) His mail was delayed and often rejected by a censor as inappropriate. In 2009, while he was incarcerated at Marion, his mother died of cancer. (McGowan was later transferred to the nation's only other CMU, in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he spent 22 months.)

Court documents would later show that the initial decision to move McGowan into the CMU was made by Leslie Smith, head of the counterterrorism unit of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Smith acknowledged that McGowan's disciplinary slate was clean but argued that he posed a threat to public safety because his jailhouse letters and articles constituted "attempt[s] to unite the radical environmental and animal liberation movements." Additionally, he had requested that his lawyers send him copies of leaked BOP documents—a blatant attempt, the BOP contended, to escape its monitoring of his communications.

After five and a half years in prison, McGowan was sent to a halfway house in Brooklyn to serve out the last six months of his sentence. While he was there, he wrote an article for the Huffington Post detailing his time at the CMU. On April 4, three days after the story was published, federal marshals arrested him, took him to the Metropolitan Detention Center, and issued him an orange jumpsuit. From there, he assumed, he'd be sent back to the CMU for the remainder of his sentence. But his lawyers quickly secured his return to the halfway house and quashed the BOP's effort to impose a gag order.

"As far as we know, this is a made-up rule applied only to Daniel, in a further attempt to chill his freedom of speech," wrote Rachel Meeropol, McGowan's attorney at the New York–based nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights.

The BOP quietly dropped the matter.

Will Potter is a journalist who has written extensively about environmental activism. He says restrictive parole conditions for activists are becoming more common.

"It reflects the political nature of these prosecutions," Potter says. "And how this terrorism language can follow people long after they leave the courtroom and long after they leave prison. This is something that can follow these activists the rest of their lives."

McGowan should not expect the surveillance to stop when his supervised release ends, Potter emphasizes. "At speaking events we've done with other former prisoners, law enforcement has been there. Sometimes they come in publicly, flashing badges. In FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests later on, I've also gotten information about [undercover] police officers at public events. I just can't imagine what that would be like. It's a constant cloud over you all the time."

For Steve Swanson, McGowan's terrorist designation and the terms of his release seem like justice. Swanson is president and CEO of the Swanson Group, which used to be called Superior Lumber, one of the two companies whose buildings McGowan helped to burn down.

"The definition of terrorism is exactly what they did," Swanson says. "They were trying to change our behavior by inflicting terror on us. It's not different than Islamic terrorists or what the IRA was doing back in the '70s. To say they were nonviolent is just not accurate. We have a total volunteer fire department that responded. Any number of those people could've been killed."

Adds Swanson, "Frankly, we used more wood products to rebuild all those things they burned down."

At his sentencing, McGowan apologized for the fires, saying he felt "deep regret" for frightening the lumber workers. "Although I now know it's hard for people to believe, my intention at the time was to be provocative and make a statement," he told the court. "Not to put individual people in fear."

Swanson says McGowan has never apologized to him directly.

In the meantime, both men have moved on. The Swanson Group tore down the remnants of its old factory and built a larger one. McGowan recently participated in Running Down the Walls, a fundraiser for political prisoner support groups. He figured it was permissible because it had nothing to do with environmental issues.

Still, he says, that April night in jail was jarring: "Sometimes things feel fragile."

A federal judge recently ruled that because McGowan is no longer an inmate, he has no standing to participate in a lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons that challenges the constitutionality of CMUs. Instead, on Tuesday, September 17, he filed a formal complaint against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, alleging that the re-arrest deprived him of his liberty and caused emotional harm.


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Priya-I sadly agree with you. Daniel is suffering but is a hero to me, as are many others.I don't really have hope for the earth but one should behave as if one does.


The term "eco-terrorist" was invented by the public relations industry in service of the timber corporations in the early 1990s. The purpose was to target activist opposition to the clear cutting logging that was devastating American forests. Once environmental opposition to corporate plunder was successfully demonized in the public mind via an uncritical media, it was easier for earth destructive industries to both distract the public from the actual corporate destruction & terrorism inflicted on our eco systems & secondly it helped sentence activists to way longer & disproportionate prison terms for actions which have never caused harm to human life. If corporate property destruction is such a concern, one must wonder why Americans are not as concerned with the wholesale liquidation of the natural world as it is transformed from paradise to literally an ugly hell on earth. Its unlikely that the public will see or hear much in the media about the eradication of our most beautiful treasures.  However activists like Daniel are acutely aware & painfully sensitive to the disastrous results of unmitigated greed. Many activists have realized the futility of relying on government agencies that are in theory entrusted to protect our natural wonders. Depending on  elected officials to protect the beauty & life most worth protecting was a dead end. They are more concerned with lining their own pockets with funding from corporate lobbies. The are like the pimps that whore America out to the corporations. It is all about money & greed & as Occupy more recently reminded us. For many direct action & non violent civil disobedience is the only option left. Donating to the Sierra Club or writing a letter to Congress is just not going to cut it. As long as property cannot feel pain like humans or animals, non violence is accurate & appropriate for politically motivated acts seeking to discourage harmful environmental practices often hidden from public view. When McGowan was first released I was dismayed to see the Voice use the headline "eco terrorist returns to rockaway" especially in the aftermath of Sandy when most New Yorkers finally realized that the actual terror they really had to fear was a natural environment that had turned on us making normal life impossible as a direct result of human made impacts that literally fueled climate change driven extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy. We can expect more such super storms & life on the coast to change rapidly in the coming years. Activists like Daniel McGowan tried to warn the partying passengers of the Titanic to turn the ship around before it was too late but our society did not listen. Whatever one thinks of McGowans tactics - the message was clear - pay attention to the systematic destruction of your planet. Stop it in whatever way you can. This is our only home & it is irreplaceable unlike the material goods we have come to value instead. As Chief Seattle warned long ago... After the last fish is gone you will find out that money cannot be eaten. The value we place on money is a false fabricated illusion whereas the living earth that sustains all life is not. It's the reality you won't see on your moronic reality shows. Calling attention to the crimes against nature & life makes McGowan & his comrades heroes not terrorists... Unless of course you prefer to believe the logic of the corporate terrorists. 

- Priya - is a filmmaker & writer & organizes the annual NYC Anarchist Film Festival. 


He could refuse parole and return to prison. Remember Bobby Sands, a true political prisoner. Sands died for his cause, he did not get to go to a halfway house near his family. ELF may be a righteous cause, Daniel comes off as a whinny ex hippie in this story.


Daniel McGowan is every one of us who is trying to make a difference in the world today. He was nonviolent, worked hard to ensure his group's actions only harmed property and not people, and did not physically harm anyone. It is ridiculous to call someone whose crimes are only property damage the same word as someone who kills hundreds of people: "a terrorist." 

Michael Fortier, an accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing, was integral in killing 168 people and physically harming more than 680 others. He is an actual terrorist. But he was released last year after less than ten years in jail. 

George Bush, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell lied about the Iraq government's possession of weapons of mass destruction and created a war that killed well over 100,000 innocent civilian deaths. If that isn't terrorism, what is? 

The U.S. government has increasingly used the designation "terrorist" to describe non-violent activists and protestor, while ignoring actual violent terrorists. That Daniel McGowan could be arrested for merely writing about this obvious phenomenon is outrageous. Courageous activists like Daniel McGowan are standing in the gap between us and fascism. I, among many, are tremendously grateful. Thank you, Daniel McGowan. And the Village Voice and reporter Anna Merlan. We are all a little more free today because of your bravery. 


"fear and intimidation to achieve a goal and affect the conduct of government," . Change governemnt to people and this is what the government does to the American people. Our government, nothing but a bunch of terrorist and hypocrites.


Agree with theast74. I'm sure Swanson's not happy about what happened but it's offensive for him to apply the T-word to his own experience. Was he or any of his family members killed or physically harmed in any way? No. There is a big difference.


The quote conflating Daniel and the ELF with the IRA is absurd. No disrespect meant to them but the IRA killed British soldiers and informants. The ELF never did this and even the prosecutors conceded that the ELF never physically harmed any of the people involved with the businesses, or any people at all for that matter.


Where did/does ELF get its money?


Clearly the ELF gets their money from that liberal scoundrel George Soros. J/K.

How much can the materials cost to destroy some GMO crops, set a fire, or hammer spikes into trees slated to be cut down? That is to say, I doubt they have external funding and probably use money from the jobs they work to fund their actions. Of course, that's just a guess.


Property destruction harms a regions economic viability. Examine the economic disaster confronting Connecticut with Metro North out of service. Imagine if ELF knocked out power because it came from Indian Point? The region would be in Laos.

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