TOM AND DONNA Howard-Hastings walked into the woods near Clam Lake, Wisconsin, around dawn on April 22 with a couple of good-sized handsaws. They put them to one of the 40-foot poles bearing cable along the road. At 9:45 a.m., they pushed, and three of the big timbers tumbled.

          To complete their Earth Day expedition, the middle-aged Duluth couple hacked a piece out of one of the poles, attached a "criminal indictment" against the US government, and delivered the package to the military headquarters a mile away. They were arrested and sent to the Ashland County jail. Their criminal trial is slated to begin this Wednesday.

          What the Howard-Hastingses had brought down--or tried to--was one of the more obscure pieces of the US nuclear arsenal. The Extremely Low-Frequency (ELF) facility is designed to communicate with nuclear submarines as they lurk deep in the world's oceans; it consists of 28 miles of antenna cable stretching through the Chequamegon National Forest, about an hour's drive from the Minnesota border, plus another 56 miles at a sister site in Michigan. The multi-million-volt cables beam a secret radio frequency into the granite bedrock, from which it refracts upward to the ionosphere, eventually circling the globe.

          Built a few years after the Berlin Wall went up, ELF has been hounded by controversy ever since. The state of Wisconsin sued the feds over it in 1984, charging that the Navy had covered up the risks of electromagnetic pollution. Wisconsin won in federal court, but the Pentagon claimed national security considerations and got the decision thrown out. ELF's $14-million-a-year price tag has also been the target of Congressional budget-cutters. The Senate has voted to kill it twice, but funding was restored each time.

          So the Howard-Hastingses figured a new approach was required. There have always been protests at Clam Lake, and hundreds of people have been arrested over the years. But only once did someone go after the actual hardware: In 1987, George Ostenson cut down a pole and was sentenced to 33 months in prison. Then, as now, Navy officials wouldn't comment on whether ELF was ever actually disabled. It wouldn't do, after all, for a key communications system to be vulnerable to just anybody with a saw.

          Generally, monkey wrenching at military facilities is a topic shrouded in some mystery. By official counts, there have been 56 incidents of what perpetrators call "non-violent direct disarmament" by US citizens against nuclear weapons since the early 1980s. But the total could be higher since not all the actions are publicized. One that was made public involved Katya Komisaruk, who, in 1987, took a hammer and her own blood to a nuclear-weapons computer system in California; after serving two and a half years, she went to law school and is now serving as Donna Howard-Hastings's lawyer.

          Komisaruk isn't the only participant with a history in this kind of thing. Tom Howard-Hastings was convicted a decade ago for cutting a pole at the Michigan ELF. And the judge assigned to the Howard-Hastings trial, Robert Eaton, was the county prosecutor in the 1987 Ostenson pole-cutting case. The defense has asked Eaton to remove himself, but so far, he's refused.

          Either way, the trial promises some fireworks. The Howard-Hastingses plan a novel defense, claiming their action was necessary under the Nuremberg Principles, developed during the post-war trials of top Nazis. The principles call on citizens to act when governments commit "Crimes of War, Crimes against Peace, and Crimes Against Humanity."

          Maintaining a nuclear weapons arsenal is such a crime, the couple argues. Just last July, the World Court issued an opinion that nuclear weapons "challenged the very existence of humanitarian law" and should be outlawed.

          The couple could face up to 15 years in prison. The only known case in which perpetrators of a similar act got to walk involved three British women who took household hammers to a fighter plane; they were set free by a jury in July after making an argument similar to the one planned by the Howard-Hastingses.

          If 12 northern Wisconsinites refuse to buy it, the pole-cutters say they're prepared for prison. "It will be grim," says Tom Howard-Hastings, "but the peace movement in America has always been too willing to give up."

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