We're Being Watched
    • PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS NADIA KHASTAGIR / DESIGN ACTION

      How corporations and law enforcement are spying on environmental activists.

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.

By 2007, 70 percent of the US intelligence budget — or about $38 billion annually — was spent on private contractors. Much of this largesse has been directed toward overseas operations. But it is likely that some of that money has been paid to private contractors — hired either by corporations or law enforcement agencies — that are also in the business of spying on American citizens. As early as 2004, in a report titled "The Surveillance Industrial Complex," the American Civil Liberties Union warned that the "US security establishment is making a systematic effort to extend its surveillance capacity by pressing the private sector into service to report on the activities of Americans." At the same time, corporations are boosting their own security operations. Today, overall annual spending on corporate security and intelligence is roughly $100 billion, double what it was a decade ago, according to Brian Ruttenbur, a defense analyst with CRT Capital.

The surveillance of even moderate groups like GDAC comes at a pivotal time for the environmental movement. As greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, opposition to the fossil fuel industry has taken on a more urgent and confrontational tone. Some anti-fracking activists have engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience and the protests against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline have involved arrests at the White House. Environmentalists and civil libertarians worry that accusations of terrorism, even if completely unfounded, could undermine peaceful political protest. The mere possibility of surveillance could handicap environmental groups' ability to achieve their political goals. "You are painting the political opposition as supporters of terrorism to discredit them and cripple their ability to remain politically viable," says Mike German, an FBI special agent for 16 years who now works with the ACLU.

The Pennsylvania episode is not an isolated case. The FBI and Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a Koch Brothers-backed lobbying group, have both taken an interest in anti-drilling activists in Texas. In the fall of 2011, according to an investigation by The Washington Post, the FBI was digging for information on the leader of Rising Tide North America, a direct action environmental group, because of his opposition to hydraulic fracturing (Rising Tide has also been active in organizing protests against the Keystone XL pipeline). Ben Kessler, a Texas-based activist, told the Post that the FBI had received an anonymous tip to look into his activities. The agency also showed up at the office of Kessler's philosophy professor, Adam Briggle, who teaches an ethics course that covers nonviolent civil disobedience and the history of the environmental movement. Briggle, who has been involved in organizing residents to impose tougher regulations on gas drilling in Denton, Texas, told the Post that, "it seemed like a total fishing expedition to me."

About a month after he was approached by the FBI, Briggle received a notice from his employer, the University of North Texas, asking him to turn over all emails and other written correspondence "pursuant to City of Denton natural gas drilling ordinances and the 'Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group,'" an organization Briggle founded in July 2011 whose mission is similar to that of GDAC. The university had received a request under the state's Public Information Act and Briggle was forced to hand over more than 1,300 emails. He was later told that the request had been made by Peggy Venable, Texas Director of Americans for Prosperity.

Rising Tide activists had speculated that the anonymous tip came from one of the gas companies active in the region. Although there was no way to prove a connection between the FBI's investigation and AFP's mining of Briggle's emails, both were viewed within the activist community as acts of intimidation. Briggle says, "The message is, you're being watched."

Tags: environment, fracking, keystone xl, spying

  • Adam Federman is a contributing editor for Earth Island Journal. He is the recipient of a Polk Grant for Investigative Reporting, a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, and a Russia Fulbright Fellowship. You can find more of his work at adamfederman.com

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