Utne Blogs > Environment

Eco-Activists Smell a Rat

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: Environment, spies, informants, anarchists, radicals, protest, direct action, RNC Welcoming Committee, raids,

RNC protest posterThe raids that snared eight anarchist activists in St. Paul last month on the eve of the Republican National Convention were based in part on information from police informants who infiltrated protest training camps. The New Statesman reports that such incursions are commonplace in the U.K., with as many as one in four members of direct-action environmental protest groups working not for the cause, but for the law or private “corporate intelligence agencies.”

“If you stuck an intercept up near one of those camps,” one corporate spy exec says, “you wouldn’t believe the amount of outgoing calls after every meeting saying, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to cut the fence.’ ”

The arrested members of the RNC Welcoming Committee learned the hard way that it’s not just eco-protesters in Britain, where new coal-fired power plants are a protest flash point, who are feeling the heat. RNC Welcoming Committee organizers apparently had big-eared visitors in their midst this summer at an activist “action camp” held from July 31 to August 3 in Lake Geneva, Minnesota, where they allegedly discussed the tactics they’d bring to RNC street protests. Police say they talked about Molotov cocktails, paint, caltrops (devices used to puncture tires), bricks, and “materials” hidden inside giant puppets.

The information gleaned by these “confidential reliable informants,” or CRIs, was central to the felony riot charges filed against the eight RNC Welcoming Committee activists. Bruce Nestor, attorney for one of the defendants and president of the Minnesota branch of the National Lawyers Guild, said the information is by nature suspect.

“The charges in this case are supported only by allegations of paid confidential informants,” Nestor said at a press conference, according to Mordecai Specktor in the Minnesota online newspaper MinnPost. (Specktor’s son Max is one of the defendants.) “A number of the attorneys here have experience in investigations with the use of informants in political cases. We are concerned about the potential use of provocateurs, people who purposely plan and bring up discussions of violence, in order to get other people to respond and then report back that those discussions occurred. The confidential informants are paid based on the value of the information they provide. They have a clear incentive to exaggerate and lie about the information.”

Though of course the arrested members of the RNC Welcoming Committee must feel burned by their turncoat brethren, the activists weren’t exactly being secretive about their plans, telegraphing their intentions to “shut down” the RNC in articles, a website, even a YouTube video. When an underground movement uses the mobilizing power of the Internet, it also exposes itself to greater attention and surveillance.

After infiltrating the RNC Welcoming Committee, the spies—two informants and an undercover investigator—allegedly monitored e-mails and conversations and helped police conduct “regular surveillance” of the RNC group. The imposters apparently delivered believable performances as radical activists, which is more than can be said of one British informant who was found out by the members of Plane Stupid, a group opposed to the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

According to the New Statesman, “The group gradually became suspicious because he showed up early at meetings, constantly pushed for increasingly dramatic direct action and—the ultimate giveaway—dressed a little too well for an ecowarrior.”