Corporations and Law Enforcement Are Spying on Environmentalists
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During the last decade the FBI and, to a lesser extent, corporations have elevated the threat of eco-terrorism to a top priority even as environmentally motivated crimes have declined. In 2005, John Lewis, an FBI deputy assistant director, said the animal rights and environmental movements were “one of the FBI’s highest domestic terrorism priorities.” In the post-9/11 era, the outsourcing of intelligence gathering to private companies has ballooned, the bar for investigating domestic threats has been lowered, and a premium has been placed on information sharing with the private sector. “What changed after 9/11,” the ACLU’s German says, “was the lowering of the threshold for FBI investigations and the promulgation of these radicalization theories that while specifically written about Muslim extremists – the same theory that people move from ideas to activism to terrorism – justified increased surveillance against activists and against people who were just part of the environmental rights movement but had no association with violence or criminal acts.”
Since 9/11 accusations of eco-terrorism have proliferated and a number of individuals and groups have been prosecuted under new laws, which have profoundly impacted the radical environmental movement. The broad crackdown and subsequent fear and paranoia that swept through activist circles have been referred to as the “Green Scare.” “The shift was gradual,” Will Potter writes in Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege , “slowly merging the rhetoric of industry groups with that of politicians and law enforcement.”
In public, corporations have amplified the threat of eco-terrorism to influence legislation, such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. In private, meanwhile, they have hired firms to spy on environmental groups. About a month after 9/11, for example, the crisis communications firm Nichols Dezenhall (now Dezenhall Resources) registered a website called StopEcoViolence.com (now defunct), which served as a sort of faux watchdog group and source for media outlets including The New York Times . Around the same time, Dezenhall – described by Bill Moyers as the “Mafia of industry” – was involved in corporate espionage. Along with two other PR companies, Dezenhall hired a now-defunct private security firm, Beckett Brown International, to spy on environmental activists. One of the targeted groups was Greenpeace. In 2011 Greenpeace filed a lawsuit charging that Dow Chemical, Sasol (formerly CONDEA Vista), the PR firms, and individuals working for Beckett Brown International (which was founded by former Secret Service officers) stole thousands of documents, intercepted phone call records, trespassed, and conducted unlawful surveillance. In a story for Mother Jones , James Ridgeway revealed that the security firm obtained donor lists, detailed financial statements, Social Security numbers of staff members, and strategy memos from several groups, and, in turn, “produced intelligence reports for public relations firms and major corporations involved in environmental controversies.” (In February a Washington, DC court ruled that the claims of trespass and misappropriation of trade secrets could proceed.)
More recently, according to a report in The Nation , the agricultural giant Monsanto contracted with a subsidiary of Blackwater, the private security firm, to gather intelligence on and possibly infiltrate environmental groups in order to protect the company’s brand name. “This is the new normal,” says Scott Crow, an author and longtime environmental activist who was the subject of FBI and corporate surveillance for close to eight years beginning in 1999.
While the above cases involved corporations hiring private security firms to carry out black-ops against environmental groups, the Pennsylvania scandal may be the first time that a state agency has contracted with a private security firm to gather intelligence on lawful groups for the benefit of a specific industry. Although the ITRR bulletins were produced for the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security, they were shared with PR firms, the major Marcellus Shale companies, and industry associations. For members of GDAC and other anti-drilling organizations, the revelations were profoundly troubling. Not only were they being lumped together with groups like Al-Qaeda, but the government agencies tasked with protecting the people of Pennsylvania were, in their view, essentially working for the gas companies. If a moderate group like GDAC wasn’t safe from the surveillance-industrial complex, it seemed nobody was. “These systems and this type of collection is so rife with inappropriate speculation and error – both intentional and unintentional – that your good behavior doesn’t protect you,” German says.