Daniel McGowan: The FBI's Least Wanted

McGowan can't associate with environmental or animal-rights groups.
Courtesy Jenny Synan

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.

"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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