Corporations and Law Enforcement Are Spying on Environmentalists
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Zhukov Oleg
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In February 2010 Tom Jiunta and a small group of residents in northeastern Pennsylvania formed the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition (GDAC), an environmental organization opposed to hydraulic fracturing in the region. The group sought to appeal to the widest possible audience, and was careful about striking a moderate tone. All members were asked to sign a code of conduct in which they pledged to carry themselves with “professionalism, dignity, and kindness” as they worked to protect the environment and their communities. GDAC’s founders acknowledged that gas drilling had become a divisive issue misrepresented by individuals on both sides and agreed to “seek out the truth.”
The group of about 10 professionals – engineers, nurses, and teachers – began meeting in the basement of a member’s home. As their numbers grew, they moved to a local church. In an effort to raise public awareness about the risks of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) they attended township meetings, zoning and ordinance hearings, and gas-drilling forums. They invited speakers from other states affected by gas drilling to talk with Pennsylvania residents. They held house-party style screenings of documentary films.
Since the group had never engaged in any kind of illegal activity or particularly radical forms of protest, it came as a shock when GDAC members learned that their organization had been featured in intelligence bulletins compiled by a private security firm, The Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR). Equally shocking was the revelation that the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security had distributed those bulletins to local police chiefs, state, federal, and private intelligence agencies, and the security directors of the natural gas companies, as well as industry groups and PR firms. News of the surveillance broke in September 2010 when the director of the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security, James Powers, mistakenly sent an email to an anti-drilling activist he believed was sympathetic to the industry, warning her not to post the bulletins online. The activist was Virginia Cody, a retired Air Force officer. In his email to Cody, Powers wrote: “We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies.”
The tri-weekly bulletins featured a wide range of supposed threats to the state’s infrastructure. It included warnings about Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, pro-life activists, and Tea Party protesters. The bulletins also included information about when and where groups like GDAC would be meeting, upcoming protests, and anti-fracking activists’ internal strategy. The raw data was followed by a threat assessment – low, moderate, severe, or critical – and a brief analysis.
For example, bulletin no. 118, dated July 30, 2010 gave a low to moderate threat rating in reference to public meetings that anti-drilling activists planned to attend, and suggested that an “attack is likely… and might well be executed.” The threat assessment was accompanied by this note: “The escalating conflict over natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania may define local fault lines and potentially increase area environmentalist activity or eco-terrorism. GDAC communications have cited Northeastern Pennsylvania counties, specifically Wyoming, Lackawanna and Luzerne, as being in real ‘need of our help’ and as facing a ‘drastic situation.’” Another bulletin referenced an August 2010 FBI assessment of the growing threat of environmental activism to the energy industry. Because of Pennsylvania’s importance in the production of natural gas, ITRR concluded, an uptick in vandalism, criminal activity, and extremism was likely.
Although the Pennsylvania scandal caused a brief public outcry, it was quickly brushed aside as an unfortunate mistake. In fact, the episode represents a larger pattern of corporate and police spying on environmental activists fueled in part by the expansion of private intelligence gathering since 9/11.