Thursday, April 28, 2005


By William Fisher

It’s truly comforting to know that, even in the grip of post-9/11 paranoia, the G-men of the FBI are still using their resources efficiently.

If you have any doubts, just ask Steve Kurtz. He is living proof that your tax dollars are hard at work.

A year ago this month, Steve’s wife, Hope, died of a heart attack in Buffalo, New York. Steve called 911. Police and emergency medical services responded.

What the police saw when they got to the Kurtz home, aside from Mrs. Kurtz’s body and a distraught husband, were vials, bacterial cultures, and an assortment of laboratory equipment, including a mobile DNA extracting machine used for testing food products for genetic contamination.

Kurtz, an art professor at the University of Buffalo, explained to the police that these were some of the materials for an art exhibit he and his wife had been preparing on genetic modification. The Kurtzes were founders of an avant garde group called “The Critical Art Ensemble”, a collective of "tactical media" protest and performance artists.

Kurtz told the cops his art has focused on the problems of the emergence of biotechnology, such as genetically modified food. He and the art ensemble have published several books including "Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media" and "Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas."

The police didn’t buy his story. They called the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Before long, a team arrived from Quantico, Virginia, in full HAZMAT gear, and began searching and testing. Erie County health officials declared the Kurtz home a potential health risk and sealed it for two days while a state lab examined the bacterial cultures found inside. They confiscated Mrs. Kurtz’s body, and Steve's computer, notebooks, art supplies and cat. They cordoned off the street, quarantined the Kurtz home, and took Steve to a hotel, where the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force questioned him for two days.

Meanwhile, the special agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office gave interviews to the press.

Officials declined to disclose what was examined and what was found. But the New York State Commissioner of Public Health tested samples from the home and announced there was no public safety threat.

Steve was released and allowed to go home.

But your tax-dollars-at-work didn’t stop there. Federal authorities obviously thought there must be something illegal in the Kurtz home, because prosecutors subsequently convened a grand jury, with Kurtz as its target. But instead of charging him with bioterrorism, he was indicted for mail and wire fraud, charges normally used against those defrauding others of money or property, as in telemarketing schemes.

Also indicted was Robert Ferrell, head of the Department of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public Health, who helped Kurtz obtain the $256 worth of harmless bacteria for one of his art projects.

Now, the FBI is once again seeking charges under the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, as expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act - charges which a previous grand jury appeared to reject last summer when they handed down indictments for mail and wire fraud. There has been no decision from the grand jury as yet.

Kurtz’s lawyer has moved to have all charges dismissed, and no trial date has yet been set.

But, while Kurtz and Ferrell await trial – and try to raise money for their legal defense fund -- FBI agents have been using your tax dollars to talk with everyone ever connected with Kurtz -- museum curators in Massachusetts and the state of Washington, colleagues in New York and California, current students at Buffalo – maybe even the cat.

The Justice Department will not comment on the case. Supporters say the government is trying “to make their own initial overreaction to the confused call for help from the first responders seem anything but foolish overkill.”

Now, I’ve never seen any of the Kurtz art. I might hate it. But it’s a stretch to think I would end up being poisoned by it.

Feel better now?