Climate Activists, Eco-Terrorism, and the Green Scare

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The mere possibility of surveillance could handicap environmental groups’ ability to achieve their political goals.
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It’s the new politics of the petro-state. Anything that’s remotely linked with direct action or nonviolent civil disobedience is being described as extremism, which is the new code word of security agencies.

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 climate activists sought to appeal to the widest
possible audience, and were 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 climate
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 climate activists fueled in part by the
expansion of private intelligence gathering since 9/11.

By 2007, 70 percent of the U.S. 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 “U.S. 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.”

The Green Scare

During the last decade
the FBI and, to a lesser extent, corporations have elevated the threat of
eco-terrorism to a top priority even as environmentally motivated crimes have
declined. In 2005, John Lewis, an FBI deputy assistant director, said the
animal rights and environmental movements were “one of the FBI’s highest
domestic terrorism priorities.” In the post-9/11 era, the outsourcing of intelligence
gathering to private companies has ballooned, the bar for investigating
domestic threats has been lowered, and a premium has been placed on information
sharing with the private sector. “What changed after 9/11,” the ACLU’s German says,
“was the lowering of the threshold for FBI investigations and the promulgation
of these radicalization theories that while specifically written about Muslim
extremists–the same theory that people move from ideas to activism to
terrorism–justified increased surveillance against activists and against people
who were just part of the environmental rights movement but had no association
with violence or criminal acts.”

Since 9/11 accusations of eco-terrorism have proliferated
and a number of individuals and groups have been prosecuted under new laws,
which have profoundly impacted the radical environmental movement. The broad
crackdown and subsequent fear and paranoia that swept through activist circles
have been referred to as the “Green Scare.” “The shift was gradual,” Will
Potter writes in Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social
Movement Under Siege
, “slowly merging the rhetoric of industry groups with
that of politicians and law enforcement.”

In public, corporations have amplified the threat of
eco-terrorism to influence legislation, such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism
Act. In private, meanwhile, they have hired firms to spy on environmental
groups. About a month after 9/11, for example, the crisis communications firm
Nichols Dezenhall (now Dezenhall Resources) registered a website called (now defunct), which served as a sort of faux watchdog
group and source for media outlets including The New York Times. Around the same time, Dezenhall–described
by Bill Moyers as the “Mafia of industry”–was involved in corporate espionage.
Along with two other PR companies, Dezenhall hired a now-defunct private
security firm, Beckett Brown International, to spy on environmental activists.
One of the targeted groups was Greenpeace. In 2011 Greenpeace filed a lawsuit
charging that Dow Chemical, Sasol (formerly CONDEA Vista), the PR firms, and individuals working for Beckett Brown International (which was founded by
former Secret Service officers) stole thousands of documents, intercepted phone
call records, trespassed, and conducted unlawful surveillance. In a story for Mother
, James Ridgeway revealed that the security firm obtained donor lists,
detailed financial statements, Social Security numbers of staff members, and strategy
memos from several groups, and, in turn, “produced intelligence reports for
public relations firms and major corporations involved in environmental
controversies.” (In February a Washington,
D.C., court ruled that the claims
of trespass and misappropriation of trade secrets could proceed.)

More recently, according to a report in The Nation,
the agricultural giant Monsanto contracted with a subsidiary of Blackwater, the
private security firm, to gather intelligence on and possibly infiltrate environmental groups in order to protect the company’s brand name.
“This is the new normal,” says Scott Crow, an author and longtime environmental
activist who was the subject of FBI and corporate surveillance for close to
eight years beginning in 1999.

While the above cases involved corporations hiring private
security firms to carry out black-ops against environmental groups, the Pennsylvania scandal may
be the first time that a state agency has contracted with a private security
firm to gather intelligence on lawful groups for the benefit of a specific
industry. Although the ITRR bulletins were produced for the Pennsylvania
Department of Homeland Security, they were shared with PR firms, the major
Marcellus Shale companies, and industry associations. For members of GDAC and
other anti-drilling organizations, the revelations were profoundly troubling.
Not only were they being lumped together with groups like al-Qaeda, but the
government agencies tasked with protecting the people of Pennsylvania were, in their view,
essentially working for the gas companies. If a moderate group like GDAC wasn’t
safe from the surveillance-industrial complex, it seemed nobody was. “These
systems and this type of collection is so rife with inappropriate speculation
and error–both intentional and unintentional–that your good behavior doesn’t
protect you,” German says.

Tom Jiunta, the founder of GDAC, says the ITRR bulletins had
a chilling effect. Attendance at GDAC meetings declined and some members left
the group altogether. Organizers assumed that their phones had been tapped and
that their emails were being monitored, a common perception among anti-drilling
activists. At meetings they would leave their cell phones outside or remove the
batteries. Jiunta, who has a podiatry practice in downtown Kingston, began to take different routes to
work because he was worried about being followed. “We kind of assume that we’re
being watched,” he says. “Even now.”

Indeed, the intelligence gathering continues. Although the
state canceled its contract with ITRR, the company still works for the natural
gas industry, according to GDAC attorney Paul Rossi. “An employee with one of
the gas companies has told me that he is willing to testify that ITRR is still
conducting operations for the gas companies and they are focusing in on
environmental groups,” Rossi says. (In 2010 GDAC filed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and ITRR on First Amendment
grounds. Because it’s a private company or a “non-state actor,” the judge
ruled, claims against ITRR were dismissed. The terms of a settlement with the
state have not been reached. ITRR did not return requests for comment.)

Like many of the activists I spoke with, Jiunta underscored
the fact that he’s never been drawn to conspiracy theories. GDAC’s code of
conduct was designed to weed out those whom Jiunta described as “wackos.”
Jiunta admits that he was pretty naïve when he first got involved in
anti-drilling activism; he would print out large stacks of information on
fracking to bring to state senators, who politely told him not to waste their
time. Now, his faith in the role of government has been shattered. “People
worried about being on a watch list,” he told me. “It was shocking.”

In the wake of the surveillance scandal Pennsylvania Homeland
Security Director James Powers resigned and the state terminated its $103,000
no-bid contract with ITRR. Then-governor Ed Rendell called the episode “deeply
embarrassing” and a one-day Senate inquiry was held. In testimony before the
committee, Virginia Cody, the retired Air Force officer who had become a critic
of gas drilling, said: “For the first time in my life, I do not feel secure in
my home. I worry that what I say on the phone is being recorded. I wonder if my
emails are still being monitored.”

The hearing sought to answer questions about how the
contract was awarded, why citizen groups exercising their First Amendment
rights were included, and, crucially, who received the information. Powers
explained that the information was distributed to various chemical,
agricultural, and transportation companies mentioned in the bulletins. At least
800 individuals were on the distribution list. In the case of gas drilling activism
he explained, “It [the bulletins] went to the security directors of the
Marcellus Shale companies and DEP (Department of Environmental Protection).”

This is only partially true. A list of the individuals and
groups who received the bulletins shows that industry associations and PR firms
that have nothing to do with protecting the state’s infrastructure were also
included. For example, one of Powers’ key contacts on Marcellus-related
activity was Pam Witmer, then head of the Bravo Group’s energy and
environmental practice as well as president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chemical
Industry Council, a business advocacy group. The Bravo Group is a public
relations and lobbying firm based in Pennsylvania.
Its clients include Chief Oil and Gas, Southwestern Energy, and People’s Natural Gas, all
of which are deeply invested in Marcellus Shale production.

The blurring of public and private spying is what Dutch
scholar Bob Hoogenboom calls “grey intelligence.” In a 2006 paper of the same
name, Hoogenboom noted that in addition to well-known spy agencies like MI6 and
the CIA, hundreds of private organizations involved in intelligence gathering
have entered the market to meet corporate demand. “The idea was to do for
industry what we had done for the government,” Christopher James, a former MI6
officer who founded Hakluyt, a private intelligence company whose clients have
included Shell and BP, told the Financial Times. Many corporations now
have their own private intelligence networks, or “para-CIAs,” to gather
information on consumers, critics, and even their own shareholders. Walmart, for
example, has an office of global security headed by a one-time CIA and FBI
official with a staff that includes former State Department security experts.
As Eveline Lubbers writes in her recent book, Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark:
Corporate and Police Spying on Activists
, “Because these business firms
hire former spies and analysts from the ranks of government, the informal links
with government intelligence increase.”

This is a global phenomenon. Corporations in Europe and Canada have
also spied on environmental groups. Although it was not raised at the
Pennsylvania Senate hearing, the ITRR bulletins also were shared with the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). In January a Montreal
paper reported that the RCMP itself has been tracking anti-shale gas activists
in Quebec.
The Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Team, a branch of the RCMP, produced
two reports that described the possibility of Canadian activists collaborating
with “extremist” groups in the U.S.,
such as Earth First! and Occupy
Well Street–an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street opposed to fracking.
According to Jeff Monaghan, a researcher with the Surveillance
Studies Center
at Queen’s University in Ontario,
the Canadian government likely shares intelligence with the energy industry.
Since at least 2005 the Canadian government has held biannual intelligence
briefings to share sensitive information with the private sector. In 2007 Gary
Lunn, former Minister of Natural Resources, admitted his agency had helped more
than 200 industry representatives obtain high-level security clearances. “This
enables us to share information with industry and their associations,” Lunn
said at a pipeline security forum. 

Similar arrangements have been uncovered in the UK. In 2009 it
was revealed that the British police and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory
Reform had provided information about Climate Camp demonstrations to E.ON, the
company that runs the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station. E.ON also hired private
security firms like Vericola and Global Open to spy on protesters; both
companies are staffed by former intelligence agents.

“It’s the new politics of the petro-state,” Monaghan says.
“Anything that’s remotely linked with direct action or nonviolent civil
disobedience is being described as extremism, which is the new code word of
security agencies.”

The fossil fuel industry’s targeting of its critics goes
beyond mere surveillance. Natural gas drilling companies have also flirted with
using the dark arts of psychological warfare, or “psy ops.” In comments
recorded by an anti-drilling activist at a 2011 natural gas conference in Houston and leaked to CNBC, Matt Pitzarella, director of
corporate communications at Range Resources, said Range had hired “several
former psy ops folks” with experience in Iraq
and Afghanistan.
“Having that understanding of psy ops in the Army and in the Middle East has
applied very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania,”
Pitzarella said.

At the same conference, Matt Carmichael, a PR specialist
with Anadarko Petroleum, referred to the anti-drilling movement as an “insurgency”
and advised industry representatives to download the U.S. Army/Marine Corps
Counterinsurgency Manual. “There’s a lot of good lessons in there and coming
from a military background, I found the insight in that extremely remarkable,” he told his colleagues.

The oil and gas industry has good reason to feel besieged.
Opposition to fracking, especially, is on the rise. New
York State has in
place a moratorium against the drilling technique, and legislators in California are
considering a similar ban. A white paper prepared by FTI Consulting, a
D.C.-based PR firm with ties to the shale gas industry, recently warned,
“Environmental activists are looking to undermine the strategies and operations
of energy companies … Adding to the activists’ momentum is the fact that a
growing number of mainstream shareholders are supporting their proposals.” But
given the absence of any physical attacks against drilling company assets, the
industry’s view of its opponents smacks of paranoia. In August 2012, iJET
International, a private security firm founded by a former National Security
Agency operative, issued a risk assessment of anti-drilling protests in New York State. In one of its daily intelligence
bulletins distributed to corporate clients the firm observed, “Protests against
hydraulic fracturing have gained considerable momentum over the past few months
… While most demonstrations have been peaceful, participants say they are
hoping to intensify actions in hopes of disrupting operations at targeted

Cyber Surveillance

The U.S. Army
Counterinsurgency Manual that was offered as suggested reading for shale gas
industry representatives includes an appendix on Social Network Analysis,
defined as “a tool for understanding the organizational dynamics of an
insurgency.” In an age of digital networks and online activism, this often
means using data-mining software, cyber surveillance, and in some cases
outright computer hacking to track opposition groups.

At the 2011 natural gas conference in Houston the CEO of Jurat Software, Aaron
Goldwater, gave a presentation on the subject of data mining and stakeholder
intelligence. In his presentation he emphasized the importance of knowing the
communities you work in, of tracking and mapping relationships, and compiling a
sophisticated database that includes all offline and online conversations. He
pointed to the military as a model. “If you look at the people who are experts
at it, which is the military, the one thing they do is gather intelligence,” he
told the audience.

Corporations have already taken advantage of network
forensic software to keep tabs on their own employees. The new technology,
which allows companies to monitor an employee’s activity down to the keystroke,
is one of the fastest growing software markets. There is a fine line, however,
between data mining–which is perfectly legal though largely out of view–and
cyber surveillance, or hacking. 

While it is difficult to prove hacking, many activists are
convinced their computers have been tampered with. Kari Matsko, a professional
software consultant and director of the People’s Oil and Gas Collaborative in Ohio, says her computer
was hacked after she began to push for tougher regulation of the natural gas

Matsko got involved in environmental activism after hydrogen
sulfide gas was released from a well site near her home. In 2008 she started helping a group of
citizens who had filed a lawsuit against one of the larger energy companies in Ohio on grounds of
nuisance violations and loss of property value. She spent many months doing
research and collecting files related to the case, some of which she described
as damning.

Because of her profession Matsko has very strong computer
security and says that prior to working on oil and gas issues she had never had
problems with malware. But while assisting with the lawsuit Matsko’s computer
was attacked by a sophisticated virus. Matsko was able to remove it and
everything seemed fine. About a month later, though, she unsuccessfully tried
to open the computer folder that contained the sensitive files related to the
lawsuit. The files were either missing or corrupted. “I remember I was so terrified by it that I didn’t
even tell people unless it was in person,” she says.

Other activists have described similar cyber
security-related issues. Around the time the ITRR bulletins were made public, Jiunta
told me, members of GDAC experienced persistent problems with their computers. “Everybody
was getting suspicious,” he says. “I had computer issues. Some are still having issues.”

John Trallo, a 61-year-old musician and guitar instructor
whose communications were also featured in the ITRR bulletins, has been an
outspoken critic of shale gas development for several years. In 2007 Chief Oil
and Gas offered him a signing bonus of $1,400 to lease his mineral rights.
Trallo, who lives in a modest two-story home in northeastern Pennsylvania, refused. He’s been fighting
the industry ever since.

“This is something that’s bigger in my life than I ever
wanted it to be,” he says. “Five years ago, when I first started getting
involved in this and I started talking to people, I would say to myself, ‘these
people are a little crazy.’ Five years later I sound like them.”

Immediately after the intelligence bulletins were made
public Trallo’s computer became nearly unusable. Documents were corrupted and
irretrievable; photos were disappearing and programs wouldn’t work. A
relatively new machine with a high-end operating system, Trallo had it serviced
at a Best Buy in nearby Muncy. He was told by the Geek Squad at Best Buy that a
highly sensitive program that acts like a Trojan Horse had been installed on
his computer. According to Trallo, “They said that the program monitors every
key stroke, every email, everything you do on the computer.”

Nearly all of the activists I spoke with said the
Pennsylvania Homeland Security revelations, while giving them pause, had not
changed their behavior. They continue to speak out, to attend public meetings,
and to push for greater oversight of the industry. Still, “it leads to some
scary possibilities in the future,” says Eric Belcastro, an organizer with the
Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. “I don’t sit around being paranoid
about this stuff. I just try to do what I have to do and get along with my
life. But I admit the playing ground is rough and I think people need to be

Oil and Gas Legislation

Even as corporations
expand their surveillance of citizen-activists, they are seeking to obstruct
public oversight of their own behavior. It’s a bit like a one-way mirror of
democratic transparency–with corporations and law enforcement on one side
looking in and activists on the other. 

is a case in point. In early 2012 legislators there passed “Act 13,” a set of
amendments to the state’s Oil and Gas Act, which essentially stripped local
municipalities of the authority to regulate drilling activity through zoning
ordinances and other measures. The law also requires doctors who treat patients
exposed to fracking chemicals to sign a confidentially agreement before
receiving information about the substances. The gag rule would prevent them
from sharing that information with the patient or even other doctors (GDAC’s current
president, Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez, is challenging this provision).

Earlier this year, a bill was introduced into the Pennsylvania legislature that would make it a felony to
videotape farming operations in Pennsylvania–so-called
“ag-gag” legislation that has already passed in Utah and Iowa, and has been introduced in several
other legislatures. Many of the ag-gag bills draw on language crafted by the
American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) “Animal and Ecological Terrorism
Act.” (In recent years ALEC has received considerable support from the natural
gas industry). Section D of the ALEC bill defines an animal or ecological
terrorist organization in broad terms “as any association, organization,
entity, coalition, or combination of two or more persons” who seek to
“obstruct, impede or deter any person from participating” not only in
agricultural activity but also mining, foresting, harvesting, and gathering or
processing of natural resources.

The proposed law has many anti-drilling activists worried.
If such language were included in the bill (it is currently in committee and
will be revised before it comes to the floor) it would greatly limit the
ability of residents to photograph or video well sites, compressor stations,
and pipeline development–all of which could be considered part of the
“gathering or processing of natural resources.” 

“It’s clearly legislation that could be easily expanded in
any particular case to include folks like me who do whatever we can to get as
close to some of these sites as we are able,” says Wendy Lee, a philosophy
professor at Bloomsburg University who regularly photographs the industrial
impacts of gas drilling and then posts them on her Flickr page.

Lee says that among anti-drilling activists there is a sense
that 2013 is a do-or-die year. The state Supreme Court is set to rule on the
constitutionality of Act 13. As the drilling boom moves into ever more
populated areas, activists are gearing up for more focused organizing and
larger nonviolent protests. With tens of thousands of wells yet to be drilled,
at least this much is clear: The industry will be watching closely.

Adam Federman is a frequent contributor
Earth Island Journal. Research support for
this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation

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