How an 85-Year-Old Nun, Activists Infiltrated Top U.S. Nuclear Site, Exposing Dangers & Urging Peace
Three peace activists who infiltrated a nuclear weapons site have been freed from prison after their convictions were overturned. In 2012, the self-described Transform Now Plowshares broke into the Y-12 nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Known as the "Fort Knox of Uranium," the complex holds enough uranium to make 10,000 nuclear bombs.
The activists cut holes in the fence to paint peace slogans and threw blood on the wall, revealing major security flaws at the facility, which processes uranium for hydrogen bombs. The break-in sparked a series of congressional hearings, with The New York Times describing it as "the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex." The three were convicted of damaging a national defense site. After two years behind bars, a federal appeals court recently vacated their convictions, saying the prosecution failed to prove the three intended to "injure the national defense." All three were released this weekend until their resentencing on a remaining charge of damaging government property. They have likely already served more time than they are set to receive under their new sentencing. We are joined by two of the activists — Sister Megan Rice, an 85-year-old Catholic nun, and Michael Walli — as well as their attorney, Bill Quigley.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Three peace activists, one an 85-year-old nun, who infiltrated a nuclear weapons site have been freed from prison after their convictions were overturned, after two years in prison. In the early morning of July 28th, 2012, Sister Megan Rice, Vietnam War veteran Mike Walli and carpenter Greg Boertje-Obed broke into the Y-12 nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Known as the "Fort Knox of Uranium," the complex holds enough uranium to make 10,000 nuclear bombs. Armed with a Bible, flowers, bread, flashlights, binoculars, bolt cutters and several hammers, the activists managed to enter deep inside the facility, cutting through four security fences. It took guards an hour to realize security had been breached. By then, the activists had splashed human blood on the walls of the nuclear facility and spray-painted messages reading "Woe to an Empire of Blood," "Disarm Transform," "The Fruit of Justice is Peace" and "Plowshares Please Isaiah." The New York Times described the action as the, quote, "biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex." The break-in sparked a series of congressional hearings. This is Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton at one hearing in September of 2012.
REP. JOE BARTON: When an 82-year-old pacifist nun gets to the inner sanctum of our weapons complex, you cannot say, "Job well done." She’s in the audience. Would you please stand up, ma’am? We want to thank you for pointing out some of the problems in our security. While I don’t totally agree with your platform that you were espousing, I do thank you for bringing out the inadequacies of our security system. And thank you for being here today. Mr. Chairman, that young lady there brought a Holy Bible.
If she had been a terrorist, the lord only knows what could have happened.
AMY GOODMAN: Later in that hearing, Congressman, now senator, Ed Markey of Massachusetts also spoke.
REP. ED MARKEY: Thank you, Sister Megan Rice, for being here. Thank you for your actions. Thank you for your willingness to focus attention on this nuclear weapons buildup that still exists in our world and how much we need to do something to reduce it. We don’t need more nuclear weapons; we need fewer nuclear weapons. We don’t need more hostility with Russia; we need less hostility with Russia. We thank you. We thank you for your courage. You should be praised, because that’s ultimately what the Sermon on the Mount is all about.
AMY GOODMAN: In May 2013, the anti-nuclear activists, who call themselves the Transform Plowshares Now, were convicted of willfully damaging federal property and sabotaging national defense material. Mike Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed received a five-year sentence each, while 84-year-old nun Megan Rice received nearly three years.
Well, this month, after two years behind bars, a federal appeals court vacated their convictions, saying the prosecution failed to prove the three intended to injure the national defense. The court ruling read in part, quote, "Vague platitudes about a facility’s 'crucial role in the national defense' are not enough to convict a defendant of sabotage." All three activists were released this weekend, until their resentencing on a remaining charge of damaging government property. Defense lawyers say they have likely already served more time than they’re set to receive.
Well, Sister Megan Rice, just out of jail after two years, and, as well, we thank you so much for being with us. We were hoping to have Michael Walli on with us, but he’s on a flight heading home right now. But we are joined by Mike Boertje-Obed [sic]—
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Michael Walli.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike Walli and Greg Obed, right. We thank you so much for being with us. Talk about what it means to be free right now.
SISTER MEGAN RICE: I really wouldn’t say we feel free, Amy, because as long as there’s one nuclear weapon existing, nobody is free.
AMY GOODMAN: Why is this so important to you?
SISTER MEGAN RICE: That’s why it’s so important: The world is at risk, every moment, as long as there’s one. And we have more—probably more than 10,000 in this country alone.
AMY GOODMAN: Ten thousand nuclear weapons.
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Thermonuclear, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn for a moment to our guest in New Orleans, to Bill Quigley, who represented the Transform Now Plowshares activists, Megan Rice and Mike Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed. He’s a professor and director of the Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic and Center for Social Justice and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University, former legal director for Center for Constitutional Rights. Bill Quigley, the significance of the judges releasing these three activists—one a Reagan appointee, one a Bush appointee? Talk about what they said.
BILL QUIGLEY: Well, they said that these folks were not a danger to society. They said that they have likely served more than enough of their sentence for the convictions that still remain for damage to government property. And they, late Friday, ordered their immediate release on their own recognizance from federal prison, which is unprecedented not just in protest cases, but in almost all criminal cases. And I think it’s a great tribute to the peacefulness, the way that these three individuals have conducted themselves. They have always been respectful. They’ve always been open. They’ve always explained exactly what they do and why, in what spirit they’ve done it. So, it’s a really big action by the federal government.
It’s also important to point out that the Department of Justice essentially said, yes, these folks are not a danger to society, and, yes, if the sabotage charge remains out of their case, then they should be free. So, it was a great action by the government. The court of appeals essentially said this is a protest. These folks were engaged in peaceful protest, and that they were prayerful and that the government—the security of the United States was never at risk from this, and that while damage to property might be appropriate, the idea that peaceful protesters are—endanger the security of the United States was really a step too far.
AMY GOODMAN: I said that Greg Boertje-Obed was with us, but it’s he who is in a plane and isn’t able to see us now, headed to see his wife. But we are joined by Michael Walli. Michael Walli, your response to being set free after two years serving a five-year sentence?
MICHAEL WALLI: Well, I’m glad to have my freedom. Something like 2.3 or 2.4 million other people are still in the penal system. I continue, now that I am on this side of the prison walls, to oppose the ongoing, continuing offenses of the United States government to the rule of international law. The terrorist site that they are operating at Oak Ridge, Y-12, continues the illegal activities of proliferating nuclear weapons of mass destruction, which were condemned by Dr. Martin Luther King, who died in the same state. He died in Tennessee in 1968. He condemned nuclear weapons. The weapons activity continues, and I, as a Christian, oppose it. And I oppose the refusal of the U.S. government to act in compliance with its legal obligations.
AMY GOODMAN: Megan Rice, could you talk about what you did, Sister Megan, in 2012? Tell us the day and how the two of you, Mike and Greg and you, came together and targeted the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Thank you very much, Amy, for giving us this time. We spent much of our lives thinking about this. You know, what can we do? We are all equally responsible. And so, we decided that, you know, this is the time we could say something, again, that has been said over and over. And we met and began really almost a year of focused discernment, asking the spirit to inspire us with what could be considered a priority place that has not been talked about in the recent times. And we ended up, you know, knowing that it would be Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
AMY GOODMAN: Why Oak Ridge?
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Y-12, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Why Oak Ridge?
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Well, it’s just that everybody can’t be at this full-time. And it hadn’t been—you know, they take turns in different places. You know, we’re all—there’s just not enough time to do this monstrous—to reveal the so much to be revealed. You know, it’s been a secret for 70 years, from the beginning, and—what they were doing. And nobody—workers are not able to tell co-workers what they’re doing, so—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about its role in World War II in the making of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan.
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Yeah, to be very brief, the whole city of Oak Ridge had to be constructed. It was just a spot arbitrarily chosen because it was sort of near the TVA and all that good energy source. And they just launched ahead, with very little planning, and constructed the city at the same time that the scientists were developing the bomb and—in different places, giving—and so the major portion of the construction was completed at Oak Ridge. Other places completed other parts. And they were ready to test the first bomb on the 16th of July, 1945. And that was in Alamogordo, New Mexico, near Los Alamos—I mean, not near, but, anyway, there. And everybody saw that it worked. So they knew it would work. I mean, they didn’t really know it would work, but it worked. And so, they went ahead with their plans, not communicating with each other. The scientists were not told what they were going to do. And the scientists all objected that it would ever be used again, literally—not all, but J. Robert Oppenheimer. Anyway, as we all know, it was used. And they were told that it would be dropped over the Pacific as a demonstration, you know? And they knew what they were going to do. So, it was done. So, again, we have secrecy and lies, and the United States population not consulted. So it was totally undemocratic.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play some audio from inside the courtroom during oral arguments during the appeal. This is Judge Raymond Kethledge questioning Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Theodore about the government’s definition of national defense. The judge begins by asking how bread, banners and blood could be seen as instruments to injure the [national] defense. Listen very carefully.
JUDGE RAYMOND KETHLEDGE: Isn’t it fair to say that the instruments here—you know, cameras, bread, banners, spray paint and blood—that’s a valid liquid—the instruments here, those are instruments that injure the national defense?
JEFF THEODORE: It certainly could be, Your Honor, absolutely. The key element—
JUDGE RAYMOND KETHLEDGE: I’m not talking "could be." These folks are in prison right now. So in this case, on this record, maybe we ought to step back from an interpretation of the national defense that is so eggshell that hanging banners and this sort of thing constitutes sabotage in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Judge Raymond Kethledge. He ended by saying maybe we should step back from an interpretation of national defense that is so egg-shelled that hanging banners and this sort of thing constitutes sabotage in this country. Sister Megan, your response?
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Absolutely, there’s no question about it. We were communicating with symbols because we knew we would not be there long, and we were not there even as long as Amy had to say. We were there a very short time, not more than 20 minutes. So we had to act quickly.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you call them, as sometimes happens with Plowshares actions, or did they come to see you there?
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Within seven minutes, they saw us there. It was not an hour. We entered at exactly quarter—we were inside at quarter to 5:00. And we began doing our work, and the first security officer drove slowly in at about 10 after 5:00, and we had done everything. We had done everything we planned to do to communicate the truth, that this is not a way to win a war, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What was your response, Sister Megan, when Congressman Barton congratulated you for helping—leading to the hearings and helping them increase the national defense, increase security?
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Yeah, it had nothing to do—our security is what they pointed out.
AMY GOODMAN: Right.
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Yeah, that it was a matter of revealing their lack of security. That was not our purpose at all.
Our purpose was just to speak the truth about weapons of mass destruction, that everybody knows, that they’re illegal, immoral.
AMY GOODMAN: The Transform Now Plowshares, Michael Walli, how did you choose that name?
MICHAEL WALLI: Actually, Sister Megan Rice is the one who came up with the name when we were preparing for months for our action.
AMY GOODMAN: Megan Rice?
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Sister Megan? Yes.
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Transform Now is the message, yes.
Why have we spent $10 trillion in 70 years, when that could have been used to transform not just the United States, but the world, into life-enhancing alternatives?
Instead, we make something that can never be used, should never be used, probably will never be used, unless we want to destroy the planet.
AMY GOODMAN: This idea of Plowshares, go back to 1980 when Father Dan and his brother Phil Berrigan—
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Yeah. Right, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —led others in the General Electric protest.
SISTER MEGAN RICE: And they were feeling exactly as we did. They knew these things were immoral and beyond the beyond. And they knew they needed to be converted into that which is needed and useful, and so they began the deconstruction of that which was immoral and obscene.
It was a deconstruction to reconstruct what we really need.
AMY GOODMAN: They broke into the General Electric facility—
SISTER MEGAN RICE: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, the General Electric nuclear missile facility there, hammered on the nose cones of nuclear missiles and poured blood onto the documents and the files.
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Right. They had the same thought. And Isaiah, way, way back, had said, "Let us"—you know, "Let us beat our swords into plowshares."
AMY GOODMAN: This is the wife of the late Philip Berrigan, Liz McAlister, speaking in 2010, a well-known peace activist who herself has engaged in these actions, outside the Lockheed Martin offices in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, on the 30th anniversary of the Plowshares inaugural disarmament action.
ELIZABETH McALISTER: We shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Nations shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they study for war anymore. "Thou shalt not kill" became, in that, joined, in our understanding, to a way of interfering with the killing, not just to say,
"Thou shalt not kill," but to literally take hammer to the weapons of death and destruction, which the eight did at the GE facility to stand in the way of the machinery of death.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Liz McAlister, again, a well-known peace activist, lives at Jonah House in Baltimore, wife of the late Philip Berrigan, who spoke outside the Lockheed Martin offices in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, on the 30th anniversary of the Plowshares inaugural disarmament action.
We’re going to come back to this discussion and then remember Malcolm X. He would have been 90 today.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about what The New York Times described as "the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex." It was three anti-nuclear weapons activists: Sister Megan Rice, who is now with us—she’s 85 years old—a Roman Catholic nun, arrested 40 times for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience; Michael Walli, a Catholic peace activist; and Greg Boertje-Obed. These three peace activists in July of 2012 went onto the Y-12 Oak Ridge facility in Tennessee and, using wire cutters, made their way and threw blood on weapons. I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now! I want to turn to President Obama in 2013, speaking in Berlin, Germany, calling for nuclear reductions.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be. And so, as president, I’ve strengthened our efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and reduced the number and role of America’s nuclear weapons. Because the New START Treaty, we’re on track to cut American- and Russian-deployed nuclear warheads to their lowest levels since the 1950s.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama in Berlin in 2013. Sister Megan Rice, does this satisfy you?
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Not at all. I would say, basically, in our lifetime and now, please.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Michael Walli, your thoughts about where this country is headed, and what brought you to this action?
MICHAEL WALLI: Well, Dr. Martin Luther King was planning on having a Sunday sermon on the subject of why the United States might go to hell. The United States is on the path of destruction. It’s a lie for the U.S. government to claim that these illegal weapons are defending or securing the safety of anyone. And even now, as we speak, plans are afoot by the U.S. government to continue to proliferate and store these illegal weapons until calendar year 2080.
We cannot believe the sincerity of any hopes expressed for peace and the eradication of these illegal weapons. We will know them by their works, not their words.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Greg Boertje-Obed, the third member of Transform Now Plowshares, who wasn’t able to join us today. This is an excerpt from an interview he gave to Knoxville News Sentinel in September of 2012, just after their action.
GREG BOERTJE-OBED: Nuclear weapons are designed to be a mass destruction. They are going to kill civilians. The intent of killing civilians is a war crime also. And preparing—just by building, you are preparing for a war that will kill civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Greg Boertje-Obed, the third member of the Transform Now Plowshares, headed back to Duluth to be with his wife. Again, Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli, as well as Greg Boertje-Obed, have been released this weekend, to all of your surprise. Where were you when you heard you were going to be released, and which prison were you serving in?
SISTER MEGAN RICE: I was in MDC Brooklyn. It was 3:00 in the morning. I was listening to either WBAI or the BBC. And all of a sudden, the BBC said, around 17 after 3:00, they will all be immediately released. So I didn’t know if that was last week’s, before, when they were saying that we would be released. But anyway, so I waited, and I woke up again after 4:00, and the very same thing was being said: immediate release. So then I knew. I began to wonder. But I got up, and I found the one other inmate—we were 77 in the unit—and she was awake. So I shared the news with her. And from then on, I mean, you know, that was it. That’s the way I learned, anyway, thanks to the BBC.
AMY GOODMAN: And now you face resentencing. Bill Quigley in New Orleans, what do they face in July?
BILL QUIGLEY: Well, the charges that are left are damage to property, and the government has admitted in their papers that they filed with the court that they have served more time in prison than they ever would have if they had only been convicted of those remaining charges. So we would hope that the judge would give them time served. In Sister Megan’s case and in Greg’s case, they have served a lot more jail time than they would have originally. There’s no way to get that time back.
I would say that the government has recognized the peaceful nature of these folks. We were very fortunate throughout this whole legal campaign. We had public defenders. We had local lawyers. We had the Orrick law firm, which is a major United States law firm, doing pro bono work. So there’s a lot of people invested in trying to protect the right to dissent in this country and to make sure that the laws are applied correctly.
So, there is a sentencing hearing, a resentencing hearing. It’s currently set for July 8th. But it’s important to know that the government still has the right to be able to ask that the decision throwing out the sabotage charge be reheard either by those three judges who made that decision or the entire Sixth Circuit, and they also have the right to go to the Supreme Court still. So these three individuals are still at risk and are operating very courageously and bravely on the outside.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Sister Megan, you could have to go back to jail.
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Whatever has to be done to get the truth out, and that does help get the truth out, because most people are not aware of all of this.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been protesting military budgets for a long time, and the weapons themselves. The budgets have only increased astronomically. Do you think Plowshares action, Plowshares Movement is having an effect?
SISTER MEGAN RICE: You know, hopefully. But, you know, it’s all of our responsibility. It’s not just Congress. It’s not just the president. Every one of us is equally responsible to end that escalation.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re a Catholic nun. How does your religion define what you do?
SISTER MEGAN RICE: It defines what we’re doing as doing what is right for humanity, what is right for the common good. That’s what we’re all called to do.
AMY GOODMAN: And your time in prison, how do you spend that time in prison?
SISTER MEGAN RICE: Well, there were so many people realizing this across the country and across the world that I had some amazingly beautiful letters. And I felt, to honor those who were writing the letters, I mostly spent my time reading the letters and then trying to get them back some way of acknowledging how grateful we all were for their part in this. And, of course, you can do that to a certain amount of time, and it’s exhausting, and then just greeting and learning from the wisdom of the other inmates, whose lives I honor so deeply. They are the ones who are the wisest in this country. They know what’s really happening. They are the fallout of nuclear weapons production.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Michael Walli, you’re a Vietnam vet. Memorial Day is coming up. What does it mean to you?
MICHAEL WALLI: Yes, I think it’s a wonderful thing to remember the worthy people who have lived before us. Dr. Martin Luther King condemned nuclear weapons in 1959 when he was 30 years of age. I spent a lot of time studying up on his life and his—he was repeatedly arrested and jailed opposing the unjust, and therefore illegal, misuse of governance powers. He was repeatedly arrested and jailed. Now he has a legal holiday.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us, Michael Walli in Washington, D.C., Bill Quigley, speaking to us from New Orleans. And thank you very much to Sister Megan Rice, a 85-year-old Roman Catholic nun who has been arrested over 40 times for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. We’ll see what happens with Greg and Sister Megan and Michael Walli in July, when the resentencing takes place. But for now, they’re out of jail.
This was first published at Democracy Now.