Corporate Spooks: Private Security Contractors Infiltrate Social Justice Organizations

Spies might miss the Cold War, but they’re getting plenty of work tracking activists

Corporate Spies

Image by Francesco Bongiorni / www.francescobongiorni.com

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Cara Schaffer just wanted to improve the lives of vegetable pickers in the fields of south Florida. In March the idealistic college student signed up to volunteer for the Student/Farmworker Alliance, a group that works closely with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to fight for better wages.

Schaffer’s fellow activists, however, quickly became suspicious of the new recruit’s excessive enthusiasm, particularly her keen desire to take part in national conference calls that plotted strategy. So they punched her name into an Internet search engine and discovered that Schaffer wasn’t a college student at all. She was the owner of Diplomatic Tactical Services, a private security and espionage firm based in Jupiter, Florida.

Schaffer’s firm had been hired by Burger King, which was locked in a dispute with the coalition over tomato pickers’ wages. In the aftermath of her outing as a corporate mole, two of the burger empire’s executives were fired and the company agreed to meet the workers’ demands.

While activists easily sussed out Schaffer’s rather buffoonish infiltration attempt, highly professional corporate espionage has become a galling reality for many activist groups. In the wake of the Cold War, former spies from the CIA, FBI, Britain’s MI5 and MI6—even the KGB—are increasingly plying their dark arts for private firms with cinematically sinister names such as Diligence, Control Risks, and Kroll.

“The big change in recent years has been the huge growth in these companies,” Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent, told the London-based New Statesman (Aug. 11, 2008). “Where before it was a handful of private detective agencies, now there are hundreds of multinational security organizations, which operate with less regulation than the spooks themselves.”

Perhaps the most disturbing entry in the lucrative corporate espionage field is the private-military firm Blackwater Worldwide (best known for gunning down 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007). Led by J. Cofer Black, who spent 28 years working for the CIA, Blackwater launched the Orwellian-named Total Intelligence Solutions in February 2007. The firm is stacked with former high-ranking officials from the FBI and the U.S. State Department, promising clients around the globe, including foreign governments, unprecedented access to power brokers in Washington. “It is not difficult to imagine clients feeling as though they are essentially hiring the U.S. government to serve their own interests,” the Nation reports (June 23, 2008).

While spying on idealistic do-gooders is undoubtedly a minuscule portion of these firms’ activities, businesses have sometimes taken elaborate steps to acquire the inside dope on protest plans, acts of civil disobedience, and lobbying agendas. This fixation suggests that the regrettably groomed rabble demonstrating outside your local weapons-manufacturing plant might actually be causing some anxiety in corporate boardrooms.

Activists also attract the attention of corporate spies for a less flattering reason, says John Stauber, founder of the watchdog group the Center for Media and Democracy and its magazine, PR Watch. “Any firm involved in corporate espionage is more than happy to take on the job of spying on activist organizations because, frankly, they see it as easy pickings.”

Often operating on shoestring budgets, and dependent on the benevolence of average citizens, few advocacy groups have the time or the inclination to conduct background checks on the volunteers who show up at their door. “Until somebody screws up in some way or ends up in a lawsuit, it’s very difficult to document these activities,” says Stauber.

That’s what happened in early 2008, when a nasty business dispute brought to light one brazen tale of espionage. Becket Brown International (BBI) was started by former Secret Service officers in 1995. After the company’s primary investor, John C. Dodd III, had a falling out with his business partners he began contacting activist groups that the firm was spying on.

Among BBI’s targets: environmentalists in Louisiana and elder-care activists in Maryland. The most audacious case in the BBI files focused on antigun organizations. Starting in the mid-’90s, Mary McFate became a prominent activist within the gun-control movement. She sat on the boards of various organizations, including Philadelphia-based CeaseFire PA and the Freedom States Alliance in Chicago, and lobbied for violence-prevention legislation in Washington.

Her volunteer activities came to an abrupt halt in 2008 when Dodd’s tips helped Mother Jones (July 30, 2008) expose Mary McFate as Mary Lou Sapone, a corporate spy on hire for BBI. Among BBI’s illustrious clients: the National Rifle Association.

The gun-control groups were taken aback by the revelation. “She had access to all the legislative strategy for every major issue for years,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center.

Not everyone, though, viewed McFate-Sapone’s infiltration as an ominous development. “I actually think she helped the movement rather than hurt the movement through all her volunteer efforts,” Ona Hamilton, a founder of CeaseFire PA, told the Philadelphia Inquirer (Aug. 1, 2008). “I just don’t see what she could have gained in terms of damaging information.”