Who is Pete Seda? To his family and friends in Ashland, Seda’s an innocent man who’s being wrongly persecuted by an administration desperate to legitimize its war on terrorism. Other friends believe he’s a naïve do-gooder who was manipulated by Saudi extremists. To the Saudis he worked for, Seda was merely spreading the peaceful word of Islam. For civil rights activists, Seda’s case represents our government’s willingness to sacrifice constitutionally protected rights in order to safeguard the nation from another September 11-style attack. Experts at counterterrorism think tanks believe Seda’s a legitimate threat—not a bomb-throwing jihadist, per se, but someone who, by knowingly or unknowingly filing a doctored tax return, knowingly or unknowingly funded overseas acts of terror.
It’ll be a jury’s job to sort out these conflicting profiles of Seda, but even after a decision is rendered, we may never know the whole truth. Who is Pete Seda? In many ways, he’s whomever we want him to be.
What most will agree on, though, is that Seda’s story represents a shift in the government’s anti-terrorism tactics—instead of catching terrorists committing acts of violence, you trip them up on financial crimes and starve them of the funds they need to wield power. On that front, the government’s main weapon is Executive Order 13224, a presidential decree that George W. Bush enacted a few days after September 11. This order gives the Secretary of the Treasury Department unilateral authority to blacklist any individual or organization as a “specially designated global terrorist.” Those named to the Treasury’s list—without judicial review, and usually on the basis of secret evidence—have their financial assets seized and have no practical means to appeal the decision. Names are then forwarded to the United Nations al Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, which summarily globalizes the ban, and requires member nations to likewise freeze the accounts of, and prohibit financial transactions with, these individuals and organizations.
Although Seda himself is not on the Treasury Department’s terrorism list, the Ashland chapter of al Haramain is one of seven domestic Muslim charities that is. All have been shuttered since being added. (Last August, Tom Nelson, who represents al Buthe and the now defunct Ashland chapter of al Haramain, sued the Treasury Department, the Justice Department and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in U.S. District Court in Oregon, seeking to have the charity delisted and its assets unfrozen, arguing that the designation process violates the First and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.) However, according to David Cole, a constitutional scholar at Georgetown University Law Center, none of the seven U.S. charities nor any individual associated with them has ever been convicted of a terror-related crime. Last October, the government’s case against the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation, which faced 197 terror-related charges for allegedly funding Hamas, ended in a mistrial without a single conviction, an event one former U.S. attorney quoted in the New York Times deemed “a stunning setback for the government.”
Two years ago the government decided not to pursue a court case against the Ashland chapter of al Haramain, but it is intent on going after Seda. To do so, it has resurrected the same antiracketeering tactics it once employed to clamp down on Mob figures like Al Capone, explains Jeffrey Breinholt, the former deputy chief of the counterterrorism section at the Justice Department, where he built the government’s case against al Haramain, al Buthe and Seda. By nabbing suspects on regulatory slipups—like improperly filing tax forms—the government hopes to slow down terrorist activity without having to build blockbuster cases.
“It’s the next phase of our law enforcement efforts against terrorism,” Breinholt says. “We’re not going after them for financing terrorism but for the lies that are associated with it.”
Seda, who pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in August 2007 and vehemently denies that he has any links to terrorism, will face this apparatus at his criminal trial in October 2008. And those who know him say he’s steeled himself for the fight.
“He came back to confront the government with the fact that they are persecuting people who are innocent of any wrongdoing,” says Seda’s longtime friend Paul Copeland, an Ashland civil rights activist. “It’s part of a pattern that’s pretty well documented. The government wants to prosecute and destroy the fundraising capacity of Muslim charities in the U.S. and worldwide. That Pete Seda is a critical piece in that puzzle is preposterous.”