UPDATE ON THE CASE OF POLITICAL PRISONER LEONARD PELTIER
By Michael Kuzma, Esq. (June 6, 2005)
Peltier is a political prisoner who is currently languishing in
the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. He was tried
and convicted in a North Dakota federal court in 1977 for the June
26, 1975 shooting deaths of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation
in South Dakota.
In order to
better understand what happened, it is necessary to provide a brief
overview of the events leading up to the June 26, 1975 firefight
in which Joe Stuntz Killsright, a member of the American Indian
Movement (AIM) and two FBI agents lost their lives. Leonard Peltier
was a member of the AIM. AIM was an indigenous liberation organization
established in 1968 in Minneapolis by Dennis Banks and George Mitchell.
AIM and its
members were targeted by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program
(COINTELPRO). COINTELPRO is the FBI acronym for a series of covert
action programs directed against domestic groups. One of the primary
purposes of COINTELPRO was to maintain the existing social and political
order by disrupting and neutralizing groups perceived as threats.
Federal law enforcement officers, in effect, looked upon themselves
as guardians of the status quo. COINTELPRO tactics included all
manner of official lying and media disinformation, systematically
levying false charges against those targeted, manufacturing evidence
to obtain their convictions, withholding evidence which might exonerate
them, and occasionally assassinating key leaders.
At the time
of Leonard Peltier’s 1977 trial, the government turned over
roughly 3,500 pages of material to defense attorneys. The prosecution
claimed that this was the extent of material in its files relating
to Leonard Peltier and RESMURS. The FBI titled its investigation
into the death of its two agents RESMURS, which is short for Reservation
In the early
1980’s, attorneys for Leonard Peltier submitted a request
to the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In theory,
FOIA is a law that is designed to ensure public access to records
maintained by the federal government. As a result of this request,
it was discovered that the FBI actually maintained 18,000 pages
relating to Leonard Peltier’s case-- 12,000 pages were released
in full or in part; 6,000 pages were withheld in their entirety.
The government refused to release this information on the grounds
that it would harm national security.
to 2001. Attorneys working on behalf of Leonard Peltier sent a new
round of requests to every FBI field office in the United States.
By virtue of these FOIA requests and two lawsuits that have been
filed in federal court, it has been discovered that the FBI actually
has 142,579 pages of material that have never been made available
to Leonard Peltier or his attorneys. The FBI field office in Minneapolis
alone has 90,000 pages. The data maintained by this FBI field office
is particularly important in that the Minneapolis field office was
the Office of Origin, or in other words, the office in which the
RESMURS investigation was based.
A FOIA request
made to the FBI field office in Manhattan on November 1, 2002 has
revealed that its file on Leonard Peltier is allegedly missing!
Correspondence from the FBI claims that the so-called missing file
is on “special locate,” a bureaucratic manner of saying
that they are looking for the file. Nearly three years have elapsed
and this file has yet to be located by the FBI. The “missing”
Manhattan file is of particular significance given that a number
of Peltier attorneys such as William M. Kunstler, Elliot A. Taikeff,
and Ramsey Clark, were based in Manhattan.
is a FOIA lawsuit pending in the United States District Court for
the Western District of New York. There are 812 pages of material
contained in the dossier maintained by the Buffalo field office
of the FBI concerning Leonard Peltier. The FBI has released 797
pages in full or in part. Fifteen pages are being withheld in their
entirety. On March 31, 2005, United States District Judge William
M. Skretny, in a 38-page decision, upheld most of the government’s
claim of exemption. This decision is being appealed to the United
States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
A great number
of the sought-after documents in the Buffalo case are over 25 years
old. Nevertheless, the government is vigorously resisting efforts
to release this data on national security grounds. Documents are
supposed to be automatically declassified after 25 years under Executive
Order 12958. The FBI is arguing, however, that this material should
not be subject to automatic declassification because it could damage
or cause serious damage to national security and the so-called war
on “transnational terrorism.” The FBI also contends
that release of the data could have a chilling effect on the free
flow of intelligence information and strain diplomatic relations
between the United States and a foreign government.
On May 27, 2005,
a hearing was held before Judge Skretny regarding the seven pages
being withheld on national security grounds. The government attorney
advised the court that the seven pages would be turned over to the
judge the week of June 13, 2005 so that he could determine whether
or not they should be released. At the same time the government
turns over the seven pages of FBI files being withheld on national
security grounds, it will file an ex parte affidavit with the court,
explaining why the documents should continue to remain secret. It
should be noted that these affidavits will not be made available
to the public, and that includes Leonard Peltier and his attorneys.
The United States
Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit recently stated: “Much
of the government’s behavior at the Pine Ridge Reservation
and in its prosecution of Mr. Peltier is to be condemned. The government
withheld witnesses. It intimidated witnesses. These facts are not
disputed.” See Peltier v. Booker, 348 F. 3d 888 (10th Cir.
The time has
come to liberate the FBI’s secret files on Leonard Peltier
and, more importantly, liberate Leonard Peltier from federal prison
without any further delay! Call, write, and lobby your representatives
in Congress and demand that they work to pressure the FBI to release
all documents pertaining to Leonard Peltier and RESMURS.
For more details
concerning COINTELPRO, readers are advised to obtain a copy of “Agents
of Repression: The FBI’s Secret War Against the Black Panther
Party and the American Indian Movement” by Ward Churchill
and Jim Vander Wall (South End Press: Boston 2002).[AMAZON.COM