At Sea Without a Paddle

Glen Milner doesn’t look like a terrorist. The soft-spoken, 54-year-old electrician is a longtime peace activist who, in 1999, managed to get Army recruiters banned from Shoreline schools. Since 2000, he and colleagues from the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action have mounted waterborne protests of military ships at Seafair that carry depleted uranium munitions.

In August 2004, one such protest got him in trouble, and on Dec. 13 Milner will stand trial in a Seattle Coast Guard civil court in Seattle. He is charged under a new law, passed in the wake of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, that establishes a 500-yard security perimeter around naval vessels. The Coast Guard has no record of any other such prosecutions locally, and Milner might be the first person in the country charged under this new antiterror law. The idea, presumably, is to have a secure zone, so that if someone is spotted within 500 yards, the Navy or Coast Guard has time to take action. In practice, Milner says, the law was used by Coast Guard officers to harass a peace activist. “They knew who we were and that we didn’t have anything, but they persecuted us because we were political activists,” he says. If convicted, Milner faces a $10,000 fine—down from the $32,000 the Coast Guard originally notified Milner it would assess.

Milner denies violating the perimeter. On Aug. 5, 2004, he and Mike McCormick, a producer for KEXP-FM and public-access TV, were in an 11-foot inflatable boat, one of three tiny Ground Zero boats protesting the arrival of massive Navy ships in Elliott Bay. In 2003, FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force personnel had watched protest craft being launched—and concluded that they posed no threat. In 2004, Milner says, there was plenty of advance notice to the Navy and Coast Guard of the protesters’ intent. As a result, he says, he was called twice before the protest by Coast Guard personnel trying to dissuade him from going out on the water.

Shortly after Milner’s boat entered Elliott Bay, it was boarded, but not searched, by Coast Guard officers. Milner was ordered to return to his launching point at Shilshole Bay. Milner estimates he was about 1,000 yards from the USS Bonhomme Richard at the closest. McCormick agrees: “There was no reason for us to be harassed like that. There were plenty of other boats that were closer than ours.”

On their way out of Elliott Bay, they were stopped again, by the Coast Guard vessel Cuttybank. This time, Coast Guard Lt. James Stoffer accused them of coming within 100 yards of the 840-foot Bonhomme Richard and of disobeying the order to return to port. (Oddly, the Bonhomme Richard‘s security officer later stated that nobody on his ship had seen the tiny inflatable.) Milner and McCormick were ordered to Bell Harbor Marina on the downtown waterfront, where they were held at gunpoint while Coast Guard legal officers debated whether to arrest them. Eventually, the boat was confiscated and the pair was released, with Milner cited only for having the incorrect spacing between numbers and letters on his vessel and for having no sound-making device on board.

Seven months later, Milner received notice in the mail that he was facing civil charges for violating the Bonhomme Richard‘s security zone.

Milner, in trying to defend against the charges, says he has faced a bureaucratic nightmare. Numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Coast Guard have simply been ignored. Last February, the Coast Guard destroyed radio voice recordings from that day, six weeks after Milner had filed a FOIA request for them. Radar records were “lost.”

There is apparently no documentary evidence proving or disproving how close Milner got to the naval vessels. Without such evidence, both sides acknowledge, it’s Milner’s and McCormick’s word against that of the Coast Guard—in a Coast Guard court. Both sides claim at least 10 witnesses. To be found guilty, a preponderance of the evidence must show Milner’s guilt. The Coast Guard says the hearing officer has complete discretion to impose, reduce, or nullify the $10,000 civil penalty. If Milner is found guilty, his only appeal is to the same Coast Guard hearing officer who will decide the case.

Milner and McCormick think the process is rigged. “It just amazes me that it’s gotten this far,” McCormick says in wonder. And Milner, defiant, is pledging not to pay any assessment and to continue protesting at Seafair: “I’m not going to quit. I went out this year. I’ll go out next year.”