As a substantial portion of about 250 detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay’s prison facility prepare to face trial in the United States, the alarm that has defined the Washington debate over civilian trials for terrorism detainees has spilled across the Potomac River. A new organization has formed in Alexandria, Va., to advocate that the federal court there, which has already heard several prominent terrorism trials, is an undesired venue for trying detainees. The founder of the two-week-old Citizens for a Safe Alexandria, Sara Raak, appeared on local TV news Monday night to tell the Obama administration and lawmakers not to “put those of us in the Alexandria neighborhood at risk” by transfering detainees to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
But while the newscaster interviewing Raak called her group a “grassroots” organization — and while Raak explained its origins by saying “we wanted to have an organization that kept the citizens of Alexandria aware of things that were happening at the federal, state or local government level” about dangers to the area — the group shows signs of being an “astroturf” effort, an attempt at making an issue pushed by powerful sponsors appear like a spontaneous outpouring of public will. Raak, who has a substantial pedigree in conservative politics and works for a Virginia communications firm, denies the charge.
Citizens for a Safe Alexandria’s Website has a number of features that raise the eyebrows of astroturf experts. Its domain is listed as owned by DomainsByProxy, which conceals the identity of Websites’ owners. The site doesn’t feature any contact information — just a box where visitors can submit a message to the group. “These vague things, the lack of contact information, they’re all red flags,” said Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher with the Center for Media and Democracy. Asked about the DomainsByProxy Web ownership, Farsetta said, “I don’t know why a grassroots organization would do that.”
The servers that host Citizens for a Safe Alexandria’s Website, however, reveal somewhat more. According to the server-information hub Whois.net, the organization’s Website is hosted on servers belonging to a firm called Democracy Data & Communications, whose address is on the same floor of the same building as the communications firm where Raak is employed, a company called OnPoint Advocacy — whose Website is on the same servers as well. Those servers host Websites for several business interests and advocacy groups on the right, including the Altria-owned Tobaccoissues.com and the now-defunct Freedom’s Watch, formerly run by Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. For its part, OnPoint offers clients the ability to “generate influential contacts with Congress” through “grassroots” and “grasstops” media strategies, including “interactive, grassroots-focused online recruitment and communications programs that help expand and strengthen your existing advocate audiences.”
According Raak’s OnPoint biography, Citizens for a Safe Alexandria is far from her first involvement in activism. The company lists her conservative-movement bona fides:
Prior to joining OnPoint Advocacy, Sara worked on the Vote for Business program at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, creating and managing grassroots advocacy programs for U.S. Chamber members. Earlier in her career, Sara directed the campaign of Presidential candidate Steve Forbes in the two largest counties in Iowa. Sara has also worked for Progress for America, where she played a key role in the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court, and served as outreach director for the Support Your Troops campaign. In addition, while working for the DCI Group, Sara directed state-based campaigns for large telecommunications companies.
Reached for comment at her OnPoint office on Wednesday afternoon, Raak said that Democracy Data & Communications — which she clarified is part of OnPoint — “was kind enough to offer” a Website for Citizens for a Safe Alexandria, but otherwise “has nothing to do” with the group, which she said also extended to OnPoint more broadly. She said “there’s no funding” for the group other than what she, her husband and two associates who are “other moms” in Alexandria put into the effort. The money they spend will go toward “put[ting] out some pamphlets” against Guantanamo detainees going to trial in Alexandria and distribute them in Old Town and at area flea markets. The contact-us section of the group’s Website bounces to Raak’s personal email account, though she said she may change that aspect of the Website if her group expands. News Channel 8 contacted her after seeing the organization on various social-networking media. Raak Tweeted about it on May 29, using the “Top Conservatives On Twitter” hashtag.
Additionally, the group may expand its focus to “rising crime” in Alexandria. “We kind of reflect the views of people in the neighborhoods of Alexandria. It’s a completely bipartisan group,” Raak said. “It’s not an astroturf” organization.
What’s actually the problem with trying Guantanamo detainees in Alexandria? Several terrorism trials have already been held at the district court without any damage to public safety, with convicted al-Qaeda conspirator Zacharias Moussaoui being perhaps the highest profile defendant. When that trial and others were held, Raak rejoindered, there were “road closures, snipers on rooftops, traffic congestion.” The trials placed the city “on the radar,” she said, and were hardly “the positive thing Alexandria wants to be on the radar for.” Other jurisdictions, Raak noted, have offered to take in Guantanamo detainees for trial. (Florence, Colo., home of a federal Supermax prison, is one of them) “They’ve already been here,” Raak said. “We’ve had our turn.”
On that point, Raak has support from Virginia politicians and national Republicans. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said last month that he opposes transferring Guantanamo detainees for Virginia to stand trial. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a House GOP leader from the state, blasted Creigh Deeds, who won the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, for not taking a clear position on the issue. And Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made similar arguments on the Senate floor last month that when Moussaoui was brought to the Alexandria courthouse for his trial, “traffic was stopped due to security concerns, a major inconvenience to locals and local businesses.” Raak’s group is well-positioned to echo that argument.
*Research assistance for this piece provided by TWI managing editor Matthew DeLong.