In August, four so-called eco-terrorists--three men and one woman--were arrested and accused of torching a logging truck in the Mt. Hood National Forest. It represented the first real arrests by the Joint Terrorism Task Force, whereby the FBI and local police combat terrorism in our area. But more than anything else, this case stands out as the first post-9/11, non al-Qaeda trial to throw around the word "terrorist" so freely.

If the evidence about incendiary devices and confessions are correct, the four activists deserve prosecution. But for terrorism? This trial's outcome doesn't just decide the fate of four young activists; it may also redefine the term "terrorist" and, more importantly, our right to political speech.

In the weeks after 9/11, the Bush Administration and Congress scrambled to ensure that terrorists would never again mastermind an attack against our country. The result was a sprawling 342-page bill, ultimately passed in October as the USA Patriot Act. It allows for unfettered monitoring of emails and expanded use of wiretaps. But as the year progressed, it has become clear that those endowed with the newly emboldened surveillance powers are not only interested in al-Qaeda operations.

"The civil liberties of ordinary Americans have taken a tremendous blow with this law," explains the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a think-tank that studies online privacy rights. "Yet, there is no evidence that our previous civil liberties posed a barrier to the effective tracking or prosecution of terrorists."

Last fall, when civil libertarians squawked that the Patriot Act would be used against political activists, their concerns were pooh-poohed by Congress. The bill passed the Senate 98-1. Yet the fears of these activists seem to be materializing.

Perhaps the most telling change has been the expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC); a secret tribunal whose sole purpose is to approve wiretaps against suspected spies and terrorists. According to articles in last week's New York Times, FISC "operates from a windowless, high-security courtroom on the top floor of the Justice Department." Between 1996 and 2000, the FISC approved nearly 5000 wiretaps against U.S. citizens; they have never rejected a single request.

Even more alarming, the Patriot Act has greatly expanded FISC's powers, quadrupling the number of tribunal judges from three to 12. It can be assumed there will be a correlating increase in the number of wiretap permits. Moreover, federal agents can now obtain wiretaps if the person in question seems "suspicious." These citizens can be monitored regardless of whether they are involved in a criminal or subversive action.

The other changes wrought by the Patriot Act have similarly expanded federal agents' powers. Exactly how far these powers reach, and against whom, may be determined when the four alleged arsonists stand trial here in October.

Over the past year, the powers given to local police have witnessed a similar expansion, as well. At the same time that Congress was hustling together the Patriot Act, our city council was asked to reconsider the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The timing could not have been any worse; activists had complained that agents were spying on their political meetings and hoped to undo the enforcement agreement. But the resolution passed with little debate. Since then, the Task Force has expanded from 11 law enforcement agents to 40.

As for the so-called "eco-terrorists," it's still unclear what evidence agents have gathered against them--and whether they used powers under the Patriot Act to collect it. Regardless, the fundamental question is why were arsonists pursued by a task force designed to prosecute terrorists?

The painful irony of 9/11 is that political actions now risk being hyper-criminalized. Lumping environmental activists--even those who destroy property--into the same legal camp with al-Qaeda operatives could unleash a new policing fury against activists not seen since J. Edgar Hoover shadowed civil right leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Under the Patriot Act, the label "terrorist" is so inclusive that it could potentially mean anyone who speaks ill about America; it could include all 3000 people who attended the recent demonstrations against President Bush. Calling these arsonists "terrorists" and allowing any evidence gathered under the Patriot Act into court will unleash a paranoid genie from its bottle--and undo years of work activists have spent securing our civil rights.