Saturday, November 17, 2007

Patriot Act abuse

By Libby

When they passed that atrocity known as the Patriot Act, they told us they had to rush it through without reading it to keep us safe from terrorists. To my knowledge, no terrorist has been successfully prosecuted under it but it has been often used by prosecutors in an attempt to increase penalities in drug cases and as in this case against innocent Americans who protest wrongheaded government policies.

Dr. Ferrell's story begins in 2004. Ferrell ordered two isolates of bacteria from the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), a central repository for all types of biological samples. The species that Ferrell ordered were Bacillus subtilis, a soil bacterium sometimes used to model its pathogenic cousin, Bacillus anthracis, and Serratia marcescens, a ubiquitous bacterium that occasionally causes opportunistic infections. These species of bacteria are commonly used in high school and college microbiology labs because of their low pathogenicity. (Serratia is particularly nice because it produces a red pigment as it grows). Ferrell then mailed these to another professor and artist, Dr. Steven Kurtz of SUNY-Buffalo and founder of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE).

Kurtz then used these bacteria as part of an art exhibit raising awareness about genetically modified food, and all hell broke loose.

Keep in mind that the exhibit was mounted in many places and was known to pose no danger to the public, prior to the arrest of Kurtz. The only reason he was arrested in the first place was because his wife unexpectedly dropped dead and the police noticed the exhibit materials which were in their home in preparation for a showing.

Three years later, the FBI couldn't make a case against him for possessing the harmless bacteria but they are pursuing charges anyway simply because he received the bacteria by mail.

Despite the Public Health Commissioner's conclusions about the safety of Kurtz's materials, and despite the FBI's own field and laboratory tests showing they weren't harmful to people or the environment, the Justice Department still sought charges under the U.S. Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, as expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act — Prohibitions With Respect to Biological Weapons.

I remember when this story first broke. It was just horrible. They arrested him when he was on the way to collect his wife's body for the funeral and they seized her corpse too. This is what happens when you trade your civil liberties for a false sense of security. That ill conceived Act should have been revoked a long time ago.

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