President Bush yesterday signed legislation designed to give federal authorities expanded powers to prosecute animal rights militants, whose activities the State Department says eclipse terrorism as a security problem for U.S. companies operating in Western Europe.
Mr. Bush signed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act without fanfare at the White House before an early morning flight to Estonia. The bill is designed to make it easier for federal agents to wiretap and prosecute animal rights extremists who have mounted successful campaigns of harassment against researchers both in the commercial and educational sectors.
"Although incidents related to terrorism are most likely to make the front-page news, animal rights extremism is what's most likely to affect your day-to-day business operations in Western Europe," read the speaker's notes for a Nov. 15 presentation at the Overseas Security Advisory Council's annual briefing.
The presentation warns that such groups as the Animal Liberation Front "cause fear and distress, major property damage, and in some instances ... physical injury, and often put lives at risk."
Victims of one campaign have been assaulted with baseball bats, had their homes and cars vandalized, had obscene messages painted in their streets, received late-night telephone calls threatening the lives of their families and endured nonstop bullhorn protests in front of their homes.
Frankie Trull of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, a lobby group that supports medical experiments on animals, said many universities and other academic institutions had swung behind the bill after protests against one researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles culminated over the summer in an arson attack against his home.
"This is the kind of thing that we hope will now stop," she said.
Will Potter, a freelance journalist and animal rights sympathizer, said the bill would chill legitimate protest but not discourage real extremists.
"These people have shown that they are not going to stop doing these actions," he said, pointing out that after the successful prosecution and jailing of campaigners against a research firm in New Jersey earlier this year, other militants staged a break-in at a laboratory in Massachusetts and dedicated their action to their jailed comrades in an Internet communique.
The act strengthens federal legislation that protects animal researchers and other businesses using animals from "physical disruption."
The new law expands federal offenses under the law to cover campaigns of threats and intimidation that might financially cripple a company without any "physical disruption" and increases penalties. It also expands the law to cover employees and secondary targets -- companies that conduct business with animal enterprises, like their bankers or stockbrokers -- neither of which were protected by law.