ISSUE FORUM HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE UNITED STATES:
THE UNFINISHED STORY CURRENT POLITICAL PRISONERS - VICTIMS OF COINTELPRO
PART 2 : THE LEGACY OF WOUNDED KNEE
MR. ELISON: As I was introduced before, my name is Bruce Elison. I am a
criminal defense lawyer that is currently based in western South Dakota,
where I have been for 25 years. On behalf of Leonard Peltier, who is now a
grandfather, and my own children, I hereby want to thank the members of the
Black Caucus, and particularly Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, for
conducting this meeting here today. I mean, this is fantastic.
Congresswoman McKinney, you have done what the Senate Intelligence
Committee under Frank Church decided not to do, and what the Congress
failed to do, despite strong recommendations of the necessity of such an
inquiry by the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and Amnesty
I came to western South Dakota to be a staff attorney with a group called
the Wounded Knee Defense Committee back in 1975, and I came from an urban
Jewish upbringing in the New York City area. I was raised to believe in the
importance of justice for all people. I was raised to believe in the
importance of our democracy and our fundamental rights to free speech,
freedom of association, and freedom to seek redress of grievances. From
what I have seen over the last 25 years, Native Americans have many
legitimate grievances, as do others in this country.
Educated as a lawyer, I was taught that our courts exist to promote and
preserve justice, our Congress to enact responsible legislation, and our
executive branch to enforce the laws of our country. What I have
experienced since my move West has both shocked, amazed, and terrified me
as a citizen of this country and, more importantly, as a father, and I
remain so today.
I prepared a written text, since I understand that is what you are supposed
to do when you testify in front of a congressional hearing, and I forgot my
glasses, so you are going to have to bear with me.
FBI documents and court records in the thousands, together with eyewitness
accounts, show clearly that beginning in the late 1960s the FBI began a
campaign of infiltration and disruption of the treaty and human rights
movement which calls itself the American Indian Movement or AIM. FBI
operations were directed towards the destruction of AIM and its grassroots
supports in the urban and reservation communities containing the survivors
of America's wars against its indigenous population of the last 400 or more
Particular emphasis was directed by the FBI towards the descendants of the
Lakota, who stopped the campaign of slaughter by General Armstrong Custer
and the Seventh Cavalry, who now reside on the Pine Ridge Indian
Reservation and some of the surrounding reservations. FBI operations
against AIM began with surveillance of peaceful demonstrations of people
calling for the enforcement of treaty rights, for human rights, for equal
opportunities for jobs and housing and medical care, and for justice in
America's courts. It soon led to the infiltration of informants and agent
provocateurs, to the manipulation and use of our criminal justice system,
and ultimately, out where I live, to state-sponsored terrorism in the
Indian communities within this country. Documents show the FBI was assisted
in the suppression of domestic dissent by agencies, including the Central
Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the State Department,
military intelligence, often enlisting the aid of State and local police
and intelligence agencies throughout the country.
It was a period in which the groundswell of people's movements in our
communities were regarded as a threat by the Federal Government, perhaps
due to its magnitude and intensity and the righteousness of the grievances
being aired. The FBI targeted the voices, the members, the supporters, and
the funders of those who stood up and visibly tried to obtain fundamental
correction of the ills affecting millions of people across America.
The FBI acted as if terrified by any signs of bridges across the barriers
of color and ethnicity and the joint recognition of common problems and
collective solutions that we could all work together to accomplish. Many of
the documents that I have reviewed, that we obtained under the Freedom of
Information Act, talk about the concern around the time of Wounded Knee,
and between then and the firefight in Oglala, of the connections between
the American Indian Movement and the Black Panther Party, particularly in
After the 71 day siege at Wounded Knee in 1973, our criminal justice system
became but an
improper tool of the Domestic Security Section of the Intelligence Division
of the FBI, in its efforts
to destroy AIM. The man in charge of the Domestic Security Section at the
time, whom others present today are well familiar with, was Richard G. Held.
Based in Chicago, Held secretly came to Pine Ridge during the Wounded Knee
occupation in 1973 to directly supervise FBI domestic security operations
against AIM in the field. While claiming in documents that AIM members were
engaging in acts of sedition, the Bureau sought to arrest hundreds in the
aftermath of Wounded Knee, in the hopes that it would tap the strength and
resources of the Movement and make it go away. It soon concluded that this
approach was insufficient. As one FBI document stated, "There are
indications that the indian militant problem in the area will not be
resolved or discontinued with the prosecution of these insurgents."
Most Wounded Knee criminal charges brought against hundreds of AIM members
were eventually dismissed by Federal court judges for illegal use of the
United States Military. The FBI then began to fund and arm and equip a
group of more western-oriented Lakota men and women who called themselves
the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or the "goon squad" on the Pine Ridge
As many as 60 men, women, and children were killed in the period of
political violence which then followed, and this is out of a population of
11,000 people. These were mostly members of AIM, members of their families,
supporters, their friends, and sometimes simply people who were neighbors
of those people involved in the movement. I remember staying in homes in
Pine Ridge during this period where men felt compelled to keep loaded
weapons nearby while they and their families, including children and
elders, slept, fearful of the real and immediate danger of an attack by the
goon squad in the night. People whose families lived for years in fear of
immediate serious bodily injury or death in their homes, their yards, or
walking in the streets of their community.
And we are not talking at this time of random acts of mindless violence by
those who are angry, mentally ill, desperate or lost in this country, but
violence directed at them and their families because they believed in the
traditional indian ways of their ancestors and belonged to or supported the
American Indian Movement.
One instance I personally witnessed involved FBI agents and a Bureau of
Indian Affairs SWAT team escorting carloads of goon squad members and their
weapons out of the community of Womblee after a day and night of armed
attacks on the community. This resulted in the ambush murder of a young AIM
member, and the burning and shooting up of several homes.
One of the killers was given a deal by the FBI for five-year sentence in
return for his testimony that two goon squad leaders had acted in self
defense in their attack on four men who were unarmed in a vehicle. I
investigated this murder at the request of the tribal president-elect, and
was horrified by this deal, and the main killers went free.
I represented a 14-year-old who was physically handicapped at the time, who
was forced to face an adult sentence in adult court, charged with murdering
one of three goons who had just threatened to kill him as one of them
attacked him. Court testimony revealed that he had previously witnessed his
brother being shot in the streets of a nearby town, his obviously pregnant
sister being beaten in the stomach by a rifle butt, and his family hugging
the floor of their rural home for nearly five hours while members of the
goon squad fired semiautomatic and high-powered rifle bullets through the
walls of their home.
There was no investigation by the FBI of those responsible, although they
were identified in each instance. This child's brother was involved in the
American Indian Movement. That was the only connection the family had.
I represented a young mother and AIM member named Anna Mae Pictu on weapons
She told me after her arrest that an FBI threatened to see her dead within
a year unless she cooperated against members of AIM. In an operation
previously used against members of the Black Panther Party, the FBI,
through an informant named Doug Durham who had infiltrated AIM leadership,
began a rumor that she was an informant.
Six months later her body was found on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The FBI
said she died of exposure. They cut off her hands, claiming that this was
necessary to identify her, and buried her under the name of Jane Doe.
We were able to get her body exhumed, and a second, independent autopsy
revealed that rather than dying of exposure, that someone had placed a
pistol to the back of her head and pulled the trigger. When I asked for her
hands after the second autopsy, because she was originally not buried with
her hands, an FBI agent went to his car and came back and handed me a box,
and with a big smile on his face he said, "You want her hands? Here."
I myself have been personally and directly threatened by agents of the FBI
for my efforts to expose what the Bureau did on Pine Ridge and within the
courts of our country. They seem to be fearful of what daylight could bring
to their conduct in the past, and perhaps their plans for dealing with
dissent in the future.
U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Gerald Heaney, after reviewing numerous court
transcripts and FBI documents, concluded that the United States Government
overreacted at Wounded Knee. Instead of carefully considering the
legitimate grievances of Native Americans, the response was essentially a
military one which culminated in a deadly firefight on June 26, 1975,
between Native Americans and FBI agents and U.S. Marshals.
While Judge Heaney believed that the "Native Americans" had some
culpability in the firefight that day, he concluded the United States must
share the responsibility. It never has. The FBI has never been held
accountable or even publicly investigated for what one Federal petit jury
and Judge Heaney concluded was complicity in the creation of a climate of
fear and terror on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The resulting firefight near Oglala was preceded by FBI documents
internally declaring AIM to be one of the most dangerous organizations in
the country and a threat to national security. It followed by two months
the issuing of a position paper entitled "FBI Paramilitary Operations in
Indian Country," a how-to plan of dealing with AIM in the battlefield. It
referred, used such terms as "neutralization," which in the document it
defined as "shooting to kill." It included the role of the then-Nixon White
House in handling complaints as to such military tactics being utilized
It followed by one month the build-up of FBI personnel on the Pine Ridge
Reservation with mostly SWAT team members from various divisions of the
FBI. It followed by three weeks an inspection tour of the reservation by
senior FBI officials and the reporting of concern by those officials for
the widespread support enjoyed by AIM in the outlying communities on the
Pine Ridge Reservation, such as Oglala.
The FBI headquarters document further referred to an area near Oglala which
reportedly contained bunkers and would require the use of paramilitary
forces to assault. Three weeks later a firefight broke out on the ranch of
elders Cecelia and Harry Jumping Bull which lasted for nearly nine hours.
FBI documents describe as many as 47 people being involved in the battle
with SWAT teams of the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and State police
Three young men lost their lives that day, each shot in the head, two FBI
agents and one AIM member. And one thing, and I will detract from my notes
for a moment, that I have always felt was so critical about the way the FBI
has looked at that firefight and the way the American Indian Movement has
looked at that firefight, is that for AIM people that day, before they left
that area, before they were able to escape, they sat and prayed for the
three men who died that day, all three. The FBI has always only considered
that only two men died that day, their own agents.
One of the agents had in his briefcase a map of the reservation. It had the
Jumping Bull ranch circled with the word "bunkers" written next to it. The
bunkers turned out to be aged and crumbling root cellars that one wouldn't
want to defend in a spitball fight behind.
Leonard Peltier and other AIM members from outside the reservation had come
into the Jumping Bull area to help them celebrate their 50th wedding
anniversary. They had come in to join other local AIM members because the
climate of violence on the reservation had gotten so intense that people
felt the need to gain assistance from the outside, so men and women came
in, including Leonard Peltier, and they brought with them their single-shot
22's and their rusted shotguns and a few hunting rifles that they were able
to get, and they were in a camp on the Jumping Bull ranch.
The government used the incident to increase its campaign of disruption and
destruction of the American Indian Movement. FBI agents, dressed and
equipped like combat soldiers, searched homes and questioned Pine Ridge
residents at gunpoint. Armored vehicles patrolled the reservation, as did
SWAT teams and National Guard helicopters.
This was accompanied by a public disinformation campaign by the FBI,
designed to make Oglala residents and their guests appear to be the
aggressors and, in fact, terrorists. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
would soon report, "It is patently clear that many of the statements
released to the media regarding the incident are either false,
unsubstantiated, or directly misleading."
You know, we used to think of, during the anti-war days of the war in
Indochina, we used to talk about "bringing the war home." Well, I think the
FBI kind of thought that that was really a good idea, and many of the
tactics that they used in Indochina and Central America and other places in
this world, they decided to try out on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Noting Leonard Peltier's regular presence and involvement in AIM activities
throughout the country, the FBI targeted him for prosecution from the desks
of its agents. According to FBI documents, about two and a half weeks after
the firefight, the Bureau was going to, in its own words, "develop
information to lock Peltier into the case," and it set out to do so.
The FBI eventually charged four AIM members, including Peltier, with the
killing of the agents. No one has ever been prosecuted for the killing of
AIM member Joe Stuntz that day. After hearing testimony of numerous
eyewitnesses to the violence directed at AIM members by the goon squad and
the Federal Bureau of Investigation, two of Leonard Peltier's codefendants
were acquitted on self-defense grounds by an all-white jury in the
conservative town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, truly a remarkable thing, but
people who were willing to keep their eyes and their ears open and listen
to the truth, and were able, by a judge who had the courage and willingness
to learn himself, to allow this evidence to be presented.
However, after those acquittals, the FBI analyzed why these two men, these
two long-haired indian militant men could be acquitted by an all-white
jury, and decided a new judge was needed. FBI documents show that a meeting
in Washington, D.C. at FBI headquarters, there was a decision made to "put
the full prosecutive weight of the Federal Government" against Leonard
Evidence shows the government used now admittedly false eyewitness
affidavits to extradite Peltier from Canada. This would catch the attention
of Amnesty International and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, but only
a little bit.
The Court of Appeals would call such conduct "a clear abuse of the
investigative process by the FBI" and gives credence to the claims of
indian people that if the government is willing to fabricate evidence to
extradite a person in this country, it is willing to fabricate evidence to
convict those branded as the enemy. Well, absolutely true, but Leonard
Peltier remains in prison.
At Peltier's trial the government presented evidence and argued to the jury
that he personally shot and killed the agents. To do this, the government
presented ballistics evidence purportedly connecting a shell casing found
near the agents' bodies with a rifle said to be possessed by Peltier on
that day, and the coerced and fabricated eyewitness account of a terrified
teenager, claiming that the agents followed Peltier in a van, precipitating
the firefight in Oglala.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the
ballistics evidence was a fraud; that the rifle could not have fired the
expended casing found near the body. Further, the FBI had suppressed
evidence showing the agents followed a pickup, not a van, into the
compound, and thought someone else, not Peltier, was in that vehicle.
Citing the case of Leonard Peltier as an example, Amnesty International has
called for an independent inquiry into the use of our criminal justice
system for political purposes by the FBI, other intelligence agencies in
this country. Amnesty cited similar concerns for other members of AIM and
other victims of the COINTELPRO-type operations by the FBI.
I will submit to you, when the government can select a person for criminal
persecution because of their political activity, when they can fabricate
evidence against that person and suppress evidence proving that
fabrication, and go ahead and prosecute a person and put them in prison for
any amount of time, let alone for life, you have a political prisoner.
Upon disclosure of these documents, a renewed effort in a new trial was
sought from the courts. While concluding that the suppressed evidence
"casts a strong doubt" on the government's case, our appellate courts
denied relief. The U.S. Attorney's office has now admitted in court that it
had no credible evidence Leonard Peltier killed the agents, and speciously
claimed it never tried to prove it did. Under our system, if there is a
reasonable doubt, then Leonard Peltier is not guilty, yet he has been in
prison for nearly 25 years for a crime he did not commit.
The FBI still withholds thousands of pages of documents in this case,
claiming in many instances that disclosure would compromise the national
security. In the absence of such disclosure, no further efforts in a new
trial are possible. And Leonard Peltier is not alone in his imprisonment
for his political activities. We have heard about some of the other people
today, and I am hearing more every day. Kind of isolated, out in South
Dakota, from some of the things.
Despite congressional interest in an investigation of the tragic events at
Ruby Ridge and Waco, the committee of Congress with subpoena power has yet
to hold full and formal hearings on what the FBI did to suppress the indian
movement in the 1970s, as well as the human and civil rights movements in
the black and brown communities of this Nation. This meeting today is an
important first step, Congresswoman McKinney, to make sure that we truly
have freedom of speech, freedom of association, and the freedom to seek
redress of grievances in this country.
I would respectfully submit that the FBI's involvement in the suppression
of dissent within our country is a cause for great alarm. Its use of the
criminal justice system, disruptive campaigns, and outright condoning and
support of terrorism in our communities must be investigated and never
allowed to happen again.
On behalf of Leonard Peltier and my own children, we would urge a full
congressional investigation, and we would urge the granting of executive
clemency to those activists from the '70s, '80s, and '90s who have yet to
gain their freedom.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon Jun 25 2001 - 17:48:47 EDT