At six o'clock on a cool June morning, after five and a half years in
federal prison and six months in a halfway house, Daniel McGowan went
home. From the halfway house in Vinegar Hill, he took the F train to
downtown Brooklyn, crawled into bed beside his wife, Jenny, and slept
for a few hours. Then he headed out to meet his probation officer and a
mountain of paperwork. It was his first day as a freed domestic
"The definition of terrorism is exactly what they did."
"I was really horrified at the time of my sentencing at being called a terrorist," he says. "I'm still horrified."
39, McGowan is a little skinnier than before he went to prison, a
little grayer. But he doesn't look too different from the guy who helped
burn down two Oregon lumber mills on behalf of the Earth Liberation
Front in 2001, or the guy a federal judge sentenced to seven years in
prison for those crimes in 2007. On a recent evening, he's wearing a
loose green T-shirt and several days' worth of stubble, a bike seat by
his side and a smartphone in his hand. He glances at it every few
Courtesy Jenny Synan
McGowan can't associate with environmental or animal-rights groups.
"I used to make fun of people who texted all the time," he says. "And now I'm one of them."
With a summer of freedom behind him, McGowan is still figuring out the
rules of his new reality. Besides being a convicted terrorist, he owes
nearly $2 million in restitution, which he's expected to pay in full.
The peculiar terms of his probation forbid him joining "any groups or
organizations whose primary purpose is environmental and animal rights
activism"—a prohibition that includes nonprofits such as PETA and the
Sierra Club. He can't associate with anyone with a felony on their
record, or anyone convicted of illegal environmental or animal rights
activity, even a misdemeanor—a tall order for a man who had spent much
of his life in activist circles. And, as he learned in the halfway
house, writing about his experiences in the prison system has the
potential to land him back in jail.
says he left the ELF soon after the second Oregon arson. He was working
at a nonprofit for victims of domestic abuse when he and 12 others were
arrested during the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Operation
Backfire, which ferreted out ELF members responsible for a series of
arsons and other crimes between 1996 and 2001. Vandals targeted
lumberyards, slaughterhouses, and U.S. Bureau of Land Management and
Forest Service offices, wreaking a record $48 million worth of damage.
of those arrested agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. One ELF member
secretly recorded conversations with McGowan, helping to convict him on
several counts of arson and conspiracy—actions that, in the eyes of U.S.
District Court Judge Ann L. Aiken, amounted to terrorism: attempts to
create "fear and intimidation to achieve a goal and affect the conduct
of government," as the judge put it at McGowan's sentencing.
months into his prison term, McGowan was transferred from the general
population at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone,
Minnesota, to a newer wing in Marion, Illinois, known as a Communication
Management Unit. Much of the CMU population is Muslim, but politically
affiliated prisoners such as McGowan also find themselves there. The
main hallmark of a CMU is restricted contact with the outside world:
McGowan was allowed two short, no-contact visits per month—he wasn't
permitted to have any physical contact whatsoever with his wife for the
duration of his sentence—and his phone time was limited to a single
15-minute phone call per week. (The BOP has subsequently revised the CMU
limits to two 15-minute calls and two four-hour visits.) His mail was
delayed and often rejected by a censor as inappropriate. In 2009, while
he was incarcerated at Marion, his mother died of cancer. (McGowan was
later transferred to the nation's only other CMU, in Terre Haute,
Indiana, where he spent 22 months.)
documents would later show that the initial decision to move McGowan
into the CMU was made by Leslie Smith, head of the counterterrorism unit
of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Smith acknowledged that McGowan's
disciplinary slate was clean but argued that he posed a threat to public
safety because his jailhouse letters and articles constituted
"attempt[s] to unite the radical environmental and animal liberation
movements." Additionally, he had requested that his lawyers send him
copies of leaked BOP documents—a blatant attempt, the BOP contended, to
escape its monitoring of his communications.
five and a half years in prison, McGowan was sent to a halfway house in
Brooklyn to serve out the last six months of his sentence. While he was
there, he wrote an article for the Huffington Post detailing his time
at the CMU. On April 4, three days after the story was published,
federal marshals arrested him, took him to the Metropolitan Detention
Center, and issued him an orange jumpsuit. From there, he assumed, he'd
be sent back to the CMU for the remainder of his sentence. But his
lawyers quickly secured his return to the halfway house and quashed the
BOP's effort to impose a gag order.
far as we know, this is a made-up rule applied only to Daniel, in a
further attempt to chill his freedom of speech," wrote Rachel Meeropol,
McGowan's attorney at the New York–based nonprofit Center for
The BOP quietly dropped the matter.
Will Potter is a journalist who has written extensively about
environmental activism. He says restrictive parole conditions for
activists are becoming more common.
"It reflects the political nature of these prosecutions," Potter says.
"And how this terrorism language can follow people long after they leave
the courtroom and long after they leave prison. This is something that
can follow these activists the rest of their lives."
should not expect the surveillance to stop when his supervised release
ends, Potter emphasizes. "At speaking events we've done with other
former prisoners, law enforcement has been there. Sometimes they come in
publicly, flashing badges. In FOIA [Freedom of Information Act]
requests later on, I've also gotten information about [undercover]
police officers at public events. I just can't imagine what that would
be like. It's a constant cloud over you all the time."
Steve Swanson, McGowan's terrorist designation and the terms of his
release seem like justice. Swanson is president and CEO of the Swanson
Group, which used to be called Superior Lumber, one of the two companies
whose buildings McGowan helped to burn down.
definition of terrorism is exactly what they did," Swanson says. "They
were trying to change our behavior by inflicting terror on us. It's not
different than Islamic terrorists or what the IRA was doing back in the
'70s. To say they were nonviolent is just not accurate. We have a total
volunteer fire department that responded. Any number of those people
could've been killed."
Adds Swanson, "Frankly, we used more wood products to rebuild all those things they burned down."
his sentencing, McGowan apologized for the fires, saying he felt "deep
regret" for frightening the lumber workers. "Although I now know it's
hard for people to believe, my intention at the time was to be
provocative and make a statement," he told the court. "Not to put
individual people in fear."
Swanson says McGowan has never apologized to him directly.
In the meantime, both men have moved on. The Swanson Group tore down the
remnants of its old factory and built a larger one. McGowan recently
participated in Running Down the Walls, a fundraiser for political
prisoner support groups. He figured it was permissible because it had
nothing to do with environmental issues.
Still, he says, that April night in jail was jarring: "Sometimes things feel fragile."
federal judge recently ruled that because McGowan is no longer an
inmate, he has no standing to participate in a lawsuit against the
Bureau of Prisons that challenges the constitutionality of CMUs.
Instead, on Tuesday, September 17, he filed a formal complaint against
the Federal Bureau of Prisons, alleging that the re-arrest deprived him
of his liberty and caused emotional harm.