Corporate Spooks: Private Security Contractors Infiltrate Social Justice Organizations
Spies might miss the Cold War, but they’re getting plenty of work tracking activists
Image by Francesco Bongiorni / www.francescobongiorni.com
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.