Daniel G. McGowan

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Daniel G. McGowan
Daniel Gerard McGowan

1974 (age 44–45)
OccupationEnvironmental and social justice activist
Criminal statusReleased June 5, 2013[1]
Spouse(s)Jennifer Synan
Conviction(s)Pled guilty
Criminal chargeArson and conspiracy to commit arson
Penalty7 years in prison, $1.9 million USD restitution

Daniel Gerard McGowan (born 1974) is an American environmental and social justice activist who was arrested and charged in federal court on multiple counts of arson and conspiracy, relating to the arson of Superior Lumber company in Glendale, Oregon on January 2, 2001, and Jefferson Poplar Farms in Clatskanie, Oregon on May 21, 2001, the latter of which the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) claimed responsibility for. His arrest is part of what the US government has dubbed Operation Backfire.

McGowan was facing a minimum of life in prison if convicted when he accepted a non-cooperation plea agreement, pleading guilty on November 9, 2006. A terrorism enhancement was applied to his sentence, and McGowan was ultimately sentenced to 7 years' imprisonment. He was released on parole in June 2013.


McGowan was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens, New York City, and graduated from Christ the King Regional High School[2] in Middle Village. He has worked on many activist issues including military counter-recruitment, demonstrations against the Republican National Convention, the Really Really Free Market,[3] and the support of prisoners such as Jeff Luers[4] and others. McGowan was a graduate student earning a master's degree in acupuncture, and was an employee of WomensLaw.org,[5] a nonprofit group that helps women in domestic abuse situations navigate the legal system.

Arrest and Operation Backfire[edit]

On December 7, 2005, one of the largest arrests of environmental activists in American history began. Using the code name Operation Backfire, the FBI arrested six people. Chelsea Gerlach, William Rodgers, Kendall Tankersley, Kevin Tubbs, McGowan and Stanislas Meyerhoff were arrested for allegedly taking part in a wide variety of crimes, including arson and domestic terrorism.[6] Meyerhoff agreed to be a federal cooperating witness almost immediately. On December 22, Rodgers was found dead in his cell in Flagstaff, Arizona, from an apparent suicide.

On January 20, federal prosecutors, the head of the FBI, and US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales held a press conference announcing a 65-count indictment against 11 individuals relating to 17 different incidents in Oregon, Washington and California. In addition to the six arrested on December 7, the Oregon indictment also named Jonathan Paul, Suzanne Savoie, Joseph Dibee, Rebecca Rubin and Josephine Overaker.

The Oregon indictment charged certain defendants with arson, attempted arson, and using and carrying a destructive device. The destructive device charge carried a 30-year mandatory sentence and a life sentence for a second conviction.

On June 28, the government arraigned Nathan Block, Joyanna Zacher, McGowan and Jonathan Paul on a 65-count superseding indictment. All four pleaded not guilty.

Criticism of prosecution[edit]

The Christian Science Monitor reports that the "Operation Backfire" indictments have elicited concern, from activists, that authorities have "cracked the super-secrecy of ALF and ELF".[7] Alternative media organizations have condemned the arrests, some calling them a "witch-hunt", "aimed at disrupting and discrediting political movements".[8] Activists, alluding to the Red Scare, claim the operations are "fishing expedition[s]" carried out "in the midst of 9/11 McCarthyism.[9] The FBI disputes these claims. Director Robert Mueller stated the agency takes action "only when volatile talk crosses the line into violence and criminal activity".[10]

Plea agreement[edit]

On November 9, 2006, McGowan and co-defendants Jonathan Paul, Joyanna Zacher and Nathan Block pleaded guilty and signed a plea agreement. The agreement does not require the defendants' cooperation (i.e., informing on others).[11]

Zacher[12] and Block[13] each pleaded to one count of conspiracy, attempted arson, and two separate incidents of arson. McGowan pleaded to conspiracy and to two separate incidents of arson. The government recommended that they be sentenced to 8 years in prison. Paul pleaded to one count of arson and one count of conspiracy.[14] The government recommended Paul be sentenced to 5 years in prison. All four defendants were free to argue for a lesser sentence.[11]

Prosecutors asked the court to apply a "terrorism enhancement" at sentencing.[15] The defendants could have faced up to 20 years in prison in addition to the terms of the plea agreement. The government was seeking the enhancement because, despite the fact that the crimes involved only the destruction of private property, it was possible their actions could have led to people's injuries or deaths. No government property was damaged in any of the incidents.[11][16]

Sentencing and prison[edit]

On June 4, 2007, McGowan was sentenced to 7 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $1.9 million in restitution. U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken presided over the sentencing, which took place at Oregon Federal Court in Eugene, Oregon.[17] Judge Aiken applied a "terrorism enhancement" to the sentence.[18] McGowan was incarcerated in the highly restrictive Communication Management Unit (CMU) at the United States Penitentiary, Marion from August 2008 to October 2010.[19]

On October 19, 2010, McGowan's request for a transfer from the CMU to general population was granted. However—for reasons never explained to McGowan, his family, supporters, or lawyers[20]—four months later he was transferred to another Communications Management Unit, this time in Terre Haute, Indiana.[21]

Close to a year prior to the latest transfer, in March, 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of multiple prisoners, including McGowan and his wife.[22] In the time following the filing of this case, several news pieces that expose the CMUs have been published.[23][24][25][26]

On December 11, 2012, McGowan was released to a halfway house in New York City.[27] He was taken into custody again on April 4, 2013, several days after writing an article for the Huffington Post criticizing CMUs.[28] The stated reason for McGowan's detention was that the Huffington Post article violated a regulation against inmates “publishing under a byline”; the Center for Constitutional Rights pointed out that this regulation had been declared unconstitutional, and McGowan was released back to a halfway house on April 5.[29] On June 5, 2013, McGowan was released on parole.[1][30]


In 2011, Sam Cullman and Marshall Curry's documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front was released in theaters and on DVD by Oscilloscope Laboratories. The documentary follows McGowan's history with the ELF while examining the group at large. The film was shown on the PBS documentary series and on-line in September–October 2011.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Inmate Locator". Federal Bureau of Prisons. Retrieved September 25, 2013.
  2. ^ a b Curry, Marshall (filmmaker), "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front", PBS POV documentary, produced and first aired 2011. Synopsis only at link. Biographical info from film. Viewed 2011-10-23 MPBN.
  3. ^ Grigoriadis, Vanessa (Jun 18, 2007). "Is This Elf a Terrorist? The first New Yorker convicted of ecoterrorism". New York Magazine.
  4. ^ Free Jeff Luers, Homepage.
  5. ^ WomensLaw.org, Homepage.
  6. ^ "Eleven Defendants Indicted on Domestic Terrorism Charges" (Press release). U.S. Dept. of Justice. Jan 20, 2006. Retrieved April 26, 2011.
  7. ^ Knickerbocker, Brad (January 30, 2006). "Backstory: Eco-vigilantes: All in 'The Family?'". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved April 26, 2011.
  8. ^ Independent Media Center | www.indymedia.org | ((( i )))
  9. ^ Environmental + Anarchist witch-hunt under way, a very coherent summary : Indybay
  10. ^ Federal Bureau of Investigation - Major Executive Speeches - January 20, 2006 Archived April 9, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  11. ^ a b c "RE United States v. Daniel Gerard McGowan" (PDF). U.S. Department of Justice United States Attorney District of Oregon:. Retrieved 2009-03-21.
  12. ^ http://www.cldc.org/pdf/plea_docs_zacher.pdf Zacher plea agreement, Nov. 8, 2006
  13. ^ http://www.cldc.org/pdf/plea_doc_block.pdf Block plea agreement, Nov. 9, 2006
  14. ^ http://www.cldc.org/pdf/plea_doc_paul.pdf Paul Plea, Nov. 8, 2006
  15. ^ Construction and Application of Federal Domestic Terrorism Sentencing Enhancement
  16. ^ http://www.cldc.org/TEhearing.html Notes from Terrorism Enhancement Hearing, May 15, 2007
  17. ^ "Man sentenced to seven years for ecoterrorism fires". KOMO (Radio & TV station, Seattle). AP. Jun 4, 2007. Archived from the original on 2 April 2012. Retrieved 3 November 2010.
  18. ^ Harris, Shane (July 13, 2007). "The Terrorism Enhancement: An obscure law stretches the definition of terrorism, and metes out severe punishments". National Journal. Retrieved 3 November 2010.
  19. ^ McGowan, Daniel (June 8, 2009). "Tales from Inside the U.S. Gitmo". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2 September 2010.
  20. ^ http://www.arprisoners.org/daniel-mcgowan/
  21. ^ http://earthfirstnews.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/daniel-mcgowan-moved-back-to-cmu/
  22. ^ http://ccrjustice.org/ourcases/current-cases/aref-et-al-v-holder-et-al
  23. ^ http://www.thenation.com/article/159161/gitmo-heartland
  24. ^ http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/2011/mar/17/backstory-communications-management-units-federal-prisons/
  25. ^ https://www.npr.org/2011/03/03/134168714/guantanamo-north-inside-u-s-secretive-prisons
  26. ^ https://www.npr.org/2011/03/04/134176614/leaving-guantanamo-north
  27. ^ "Jailed Environmentalist Daniel McGowan Released to Halfway House". Democracy Now. December 12, 2012. Retrieved December 15, 2012.
  28. ^ http://www.greenisthenewred.com/blog/daniel-mcgowan-back-in-prison-cmu-huffington-post-article/6837/
  29. ^ http://ccrjustice.org/newsroom/press-releases/update%3A-environmental-activist-daniel-mcgowan-released-mdc-prison%2C-returned-halfway-house
  30. ^ Merlan, Anna (September 25, 2013). "Daniel McGowan: The FBI's Least Wanted". The Village Voice. Retrieved September 25, 2013.

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