12 Corporate Espionage Tactics Used Against Leading Progressive Groups, Activists and Whistleblowers
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Posing as volunteers. Stealing documents. Dumpster diving. Planting electronic bugs. Hacking computers. Tapping phones and voicemail. Planting false information. Trailing family members. Threatening reporters. Hiring cops, CIA officers and combat veterans to do all these dirty deeds—and counting on little pushback from law enforcement, mainstream media or Congress.
These are some of the ways that many of America’s largest corporations have spied on nonprofits for years, according to a detailed new report from the Center for Corporate Policy tracing decades of corporate espionage where tactics developed for American intelligence agencies have been imported by a long list of corporate giants for use against progressives.
“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Walmart, Monsanto, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Chevron, Burger King, McDonald’s, Shell, BP, BEA, Sasol, Brown & Williamson and E.ON have all been linked to espionage against non-profit organizations, activists and whistleblowers,” the report said, noting that its targets are “environmental, anti-war, public-interest, consumer, food safety, pesticide reform, nursing home reform, gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms-control groups.”
“There’s so many different tactics,” said Gary Ruskin, the center’s director and the report’s author. “It’s so important to talk about the effects on our democracy and privacy. Civic groups can’t work if they’re surrounded by serious espionage activities. And citizens don’t lose their rights to privacy if they disagree with corporations.”
Compared to Europe, where some of the same corporate players—and their staff or hired guns—have landed in court, been shamed in the media and even given jail terms, spying against non-profits has flourished with little legal consequence in America. The Justice Department almost never investigates. Nor does Congress look at the practice, which clearly would be illegal with its break-ins, thefts, threats, slander and racketeering.
“If corporate espionage is done with impunity, or near impunity, it invites more corporate espionage,” Ruskin said. “The Department of Justice needs to investigate and prosecute where warranted, and Congress needs to hold hearings.”
AlterNet counted a dozen dirty tactics and trends used by corporate spies, whether inside “security” or “threat-assessment” staff, or a mix of outside public relations and law firms and other covert operations specialists. These trends start at the most basic level, like pretending to be a volunteer, but escalate to cyber warfare and even blackmail.
1. Posing as volunteers.
For most of the 1990s, Greenpeace was repeatedly targeted due to its campaign to phase out the use of chlorine in making plastics and paper. In 2008, investigative reporter James Ridgeway reported on a trove of documents obtained from an ex-employee of a private security firm, Becket Brown International. The papers described how BBI planted “undercover operatives” in many environmental groups, with a heavy emphasis on Greenpeace. BBI wanted everything and anything about its anti-corporate strategies.
In late 2010, Greenpeace sued BBI’s backer—Dow Chemical—in federal district court, citing anti-racketeering law. Its suit noted that “Mary Lou Sapone, a BBI consultant and experienced infiltrator of nonprofits, posed as a prospective volunteer” at its Washington, D.C. headquarters. BBI knew the office layout, key codes to open doors, and much more, the suit said. “BBI procured and held highly confidential Greenpeace records, including, for example, confidential personal, financial and employment records—which could only have been secured from Greenpeace’s offices.”
Greenpeace was not alone in being infiltrated by corporate spies. “From the mid-1990s through much of the 2000s, Mary McFate was a prominent volunteer for gun-control groups,” the Center For Corporate Policy report said.
“She ran for a seat on the board of directors of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and worked closely with other national gun-control organizations, such as the Violence Policy Center. She was director of federal legislation for States United to Prevent Gun Violence. She was deeply knowledgeable about the plans and actions of these and other national gun conteol groups. They, however, did not know that her other identity was Mary Lou Sapone, who since the late 1980s had been paid by corporations to spy on citizens groups.”