US Bows Out After Plowshares Conviction Vacated: Appeals Court Ill-Informed on Nuclear Overkill

John LaForge

The 2012 Transform Now Plowshares anti-nuclear action made the “Fort Knox” of weapons-grade uranium look like “F.Troop.” Three senior peace activists got through four chain-link fences, and past multiple “lethal force” zones, before stringing banners, spray-painting slogans and pouring blood on the Highly-Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, in Oak Ridge, Tenn., all without being noticed by guards.
The guard that finally spotted the three -- Sr. Megan Rice, 85, of New York City, Greg Boertje-Obed, 60, of Duluth, and Michael Walli, 66, of Washington, DC -- testified that he knew a peace protest when he saw one. He had watched a lot of them while on duty at Rocky Flatts, the former plutonium warhead factory near Denver, Colorado. That’s why he shrugged off official protocol and didn’t draw his gun on Greg, Megan and Michael that night.
Yet the trial judge, prosecutor, and Knoxville, Tenn. jury decided to transform the symbolic peace protest into “sabotage” -- the “intentional and willful” injuring of “national defense.” After forbidding defense evidence of the outlaw status of nuclear weapons production, the trial judge waited for the guaranteed convictions (sabotage and damage to property), and then ordered the three jailed pending sentencing because, he said, the technical terms of the charge placed it within the definition of a “federal crime of terrorism.” Commentators around the country howled at the idea of equating disarmament sloganeering and symbols with bomb building, but the religious pacifists were taken away in cuffs and ankle chains -- just like any dissident in China, Iran or North Korea.
Finally, after years of legal wrangling and 24 months in various jails and prisons, a successful appeal has shown the trial for the kangaroo Kabuki dance it was. Last May, a Federal Appeals Court, voting two-to-one, threw out the “sabotage” convictions, declaring, “No rational jury could find that the defendants had that intent [sabotage] when they cut the fences… Nor could a rational jury find that the defendants had that intent when they engaged in the protest activities outside.” Cir. Judge Raymond Kethledge, writing for the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals said, “It takes more than bad publicity to injure the national defense.”
The Appeals Court decision to vacate the sabotage convictions, and its hasty release of the Plowshares activists, could have been challenged by the Justice Department with an appeal to all 23 judges of the 6th Circuit -- but the government threw in the towel.
Re-sentencing on the damage charge is set for Sept. 15 in Knoxville, but no more time is expected because the two years already served by Greg, Megan and Michael is “substantially” more than what US guidelines require.

Blind Spot Taints Appeal Court Decision

The Appeals Court opinion made one grossly ill-informed distinction between this case and two other Plowshares actions. In symbolic protest actions taken on top of Minuteman III nuclear missile silos, the “Silo Pruning Hooks” (Carl Kabat, Helen Woodson, Paul Kabat, and Larry Cloud Morgan) damaged a concrete silo lid in Missouri in 1985; and the “Sacred Earth and Space Plowshares” (Sisters Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert, and Jackie Husdon) did symbolic damage to a silo in Colorado in 2002.
The Appeals Court claimed that unlike actions taken at weapons manufacturing sites, protests against bunkers with armed nuclear weapons on alert like the Minuteman missiles could still be characterized as sabotage because, “... even a brief disruption of operations would have grievously impaired the nation’s ability to attack and defend. (Imagine, for example, if Soviet [sic] infiltrators had similarly disrupted the facilities’ operations in the minutes before a Soviet first strike.)”
This hypothetical claim by the Appeals Court betrays profound ignorance of the size of the US nuclear arsenal, its diversity, and destructive capacity.
A computer glitch at Wyoming’s FE Warren Air Force Base in October 2010 took 50 Minuteman missiles off-line, but, according to Lt. Gen. Dirk Jameson, had “no real bearing on the capabilities of our nuclear forces.” Gen. Jameson was Deputy Commander in Chief and Chief of Staff of Strategic Command which controls all 450 Minuteman missiles. And Lt. Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, said at the time, “The wartime capability of that squadron [of missiles] was never significantly affected.” The Appeals Court is also ignorant of the fact that dozens of Minuteman missiles are regularly taken off alert for repairs or replacement, meaning they are “disrupted” without any slacking of nuclear war readiness.
Further, the US has 14 Trident submarines, each armed with 24 missiles that can carry eight warheads apiece that can fly 6,000 miles. If only four of these submarines are on patrol, their 768 nuclear warheads could incinerate every major city on Earth, not merely those in “Soviet” territory.
The Appeals Court cited testimony of an Air Force Lt. Col. who said, regarding missile protests, that “it would be unwise to launch the missile in those circumstances.” Of course thousands of authorities have said it would be unwise to launch nuclear attacks under any circumstances. In what could stand as the last word on the subject, former Cold War Presidential Adviser and anti-Soviet hawk Paul Nitze wrote in 1999, “I can think of no circumstances under which it would be wise for the United States to use nuclear weapons, even in retaliation for their prior use against us.”

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