The War on Democracy: How Corporations and Spy Agencies Use 'Security' to Defend Profiteering and Crush Activism

by Nafeez  Ahmad

A stunning new report compiles extensive evidence showing how some of the world's largest corporations have partnered with private intelligence firms and government intelligence agencies to spy on activist and nonprofit groups. Environmental activism is a prominent though not exclusive focus of these activities.

The report by the Center for Corporate Policy (CCP) in Washington DC titled Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage against Nonprofit Organizations draws on a wide range of public record evidence, including lawsuits and journalistic investigations. It paints a disturbing picture of a global corporate espionage programme that is out of control, with possibly as much as one in four activists being private spies.
The report argues that a key precondition for corporate espionage is that the nonprofit in question:

"... impairs or at least threatens a company's assets or image sufficiently."

One of the groups that has been targeted the most, and by a range of different corporations, is Greenpeace. In the 1990s, Greenpeace was tracked by private security firm Beckett Brown International (BBI) on behalf of the world's largest chlorine producer, Dow Chemical, due to the environmental organisation's campaigning against the use of chlorine to manufacture paper and plastics. The spying included:

"... pilfering documents from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings."

Other Greenpeace offices in France and Europe were hacked and spied on by French private intelligence firms at the behest of Électricité de France, the world's largest operator of nuclear power plants, 85% owned by the French government.

Oil companies Shell and BP had also reportedly hired Hackluyt, a private investigative firm with "close links" to MI6, to infiltrate Greenpeace by planting an agent who "posed as a left -wing sympathiser and film maker." His mission was to "betray plans of Greenpeace's activities against oil giants," including gathering "information about the movements of the motor vessel Greenpeace in the north Atlantic."

The CCP report notes that:

"A diverse array of nonprofits have been targeted by espionage, including environmental, anti-war, public interest, consumer, food safety, pesticide reform, nursing home reform, gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms control groups.

Many of the world's largest corporations and their trade associations - including the US Chamber of Commerce, Walmart, Monsanto, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Chevron, Burger King, McDonald's, Shell, BP, BAE, Sasol, Brown & Williamson and E.ON - have been linked to espionage or planned espionage against nonprofit organizations, activists and whistleblowers."

Exploring other examples of this activity, the report notes that in Ecuador, after a lawsuit against Texaco triggering a $9.5 billion fine for spilling 350 million gallons of oil around Lago Agrio, the private investigations firm Kroll tried to hire journalist Mary Cuddehe as a "corporate spy" for Chevron, to undermine studies of the environmental health effects of the spill.

Referring to the work of US investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, the report points out that the notorious defence contractor Blackwater, later renamed XE Services and now Academi, had sought to become "the intel arm" of Monsanto, the agricultural and biotechnology corporation associated with genetically modified foods. Blackwater was paid to "provide operatives to infiltrate activist groups organizing against the multinational biotech firm."

In another case, the UK's Camp for Climate Action, which supports the decommissioning of coal-fired plants, was infiltrated by private security firm Vericola on behalf of three energy companies, E.ON, Scottish Power, and Scottish Resources Group.

Reviewing emails released by Wikileaks from the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor, the report shows how the firm reportedly "conducted espionage against human rights, animal rights and environmental groups, on behalf of companies such as Coca-Cola." In one case, the emails suggest that Stratfor investigated People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) at Coca-Cola's request, and had access to a classified FBI investigation on PETA.

The report uncovers compelling evidence that much corporate espionage is facilitated by government agencies, particularly the FBI. The CCP report examines a September 2010 document from the Office of the Inspector General in the US Justice Department, which reviewed FBI investigations between 2001 and 2006. It concluded that:

"... the factual basis of opening some of the investigations of individuals affiliated with the groups was factually weak... In some cases, we also found that the FBI extended the duration of investigations involving advocacy groups or their members without adequate basis…. In some cases, the FBI classified some of its investigations relating to nonviolent civil disobedience under its 'Acts of Terrorism' classification."

For instance, on an FBI investigation of Greenpeace, the Justice Department found that:

"... the FBI articulated little or no basis for suspecting a violation of any federal criminal statute... the FBI's opening EC [electronic communication] did not articulate any basis to suspect that they were planning any federal crimes….We also found that the FBI kept this investigation open for over 3 years, long past the corporate shareholder meetings that the subjects were supposedly planning to disrupt... We concluded that the investigation was kept open 'beyond the point at which its underlying justification no longer existed,' which was inconsistent with the FBI's Manual of Investigative and Operational Guidelines (MIOG)."

The FBI's involvement in corporate espionage has been institutionalised through 'InfraGard', "a little-known partnership between private industry, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security." The partnership involves the participation of "more than 23,000 representatives of private industry," including 350 of the Fortune 500 companies.

But it's not just the FBI. According to the new report, "active-duty CIA operatives are allowed to sell their expertise to the highest bidder", a policy that gives "financial firms and hedge funds access to the nation's top-level intelligence talent. Little is known about the CIA's moonlighting policy, or which corporations have hired current CIA operatives."

The report concludes that, due to an extreme lack of oversight, government effectively tends to simply "rubber stamp" such intelligence outsourcing:

"In effect, corporations are now able to replicate in miniature the services of a private CIA, employing active-duty and retired officers from intelligence and/or law enforcement. Lawlessness committed by this private intelligence and law enforcement capacity, which appears to enjoy near impunity, is a threat to democracy and the rule of law. In essence, corporations are now able to hire a private law enforcement capacity - which is barely constrained by legal and ethical norms - and use it to subvert or destroy civic groups. This greatly erodes the capacity of the civic sector to countervail the tremendous power of corporate and wealthy elites."

Gary Ruskin, author of the report, said:

"Corporate espionage against nonprofit organizations is an egregious abuse of corporate power that is subverting democracy. Who will rein in the forces of corporate lawlessness as they bear down upon nonprofit defenders of justice?"

That's a good question. Ironically, many of the same companies spearheading the war on democracy are also at war with planet earth - just last week the Guardian revealed that 90 of some of the biggest corporations generate nearly two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions and are thus overwhelmingly responsible for climate change.

Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and Chief Research Officer at Unitas Communications Ltd where he leads on geopolitical risk. His latest book is A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), which inspired the award-winning documentary feature film, The Crisis of Civilization (2011).


Spy vs. Spy: Walmart's Corporate Surveillance on Black Friday

by Barbara Garson

I took part in one of the 1500 Walmart protests this past Black Friday. It gave me a new perspective on NSA Surveillance.

Walmart "associates" photographed by the author's husband who were busy photographing the gathering protesters, some of them employees themselves, outside a Walmart on Black Friday in Secaucus, New Jersey. (Credit: Frank Leonardo)

Well before noon my husband and I were sitting on a sunny bench in front of theWalmart in Secaucus, New Jersey. To the Walmart security agents, conferring with groups of Hudson County Sheriff's officers, we must have looked like the silver haired elderly couple that we are. They didn't seem to realize that we, like they, were waiting for the demonstrators to arrive.

"Some of these demonstrators want to get hit by a cop," a young security man said. Perhaps he was only currying favor with the "real" cops when he assured them that if such a thing occurred that day, no one would later find those pictures on any Walmart surveillance camera. [At the risk of ruining the suspense, nothing remotely like that happened.]

It was now almost twelve-thirty and there was still no demonstration in sight so we left our bench to scout the perimeter of the parking lot. From its furthest corner I spotted a line of banners and pickets across a highway. While we had been waiting at the obvious meeting place—right in front of the store—two bus-loads of protestors had arrived and been barred from entering the Walmart parking lot. Secaucus Sherriff's officers directed us courteously across the multi-lane highway where we, too, could be out of sight.

Once there I scavenged for leaflets so I could go back to the store's entrance and inform Black Friday shoppers how little the people helping them inside are paid. (A common poster of the employee group 'OUR Walmart' reads simply "25K." That's not the low-wage they're protesting, it's the annual full time wage they aspire to when they form a union.)

I wasn't worried about being arrested for leafleting on Walmart property because I know my free speech and labor law—or so I thought. Marsh Vs. Alabama, a 1940s Supreme Court case, established that a company town that included the functional equivalent of a business district, couldn't deny the exercise of free speech or religious liberty, (the case involved Jehovah's Witnesses) even though the entire city was company property.

Since then, shopping malls have become America's functional business districts and several clear federal court decisions gave unions the right to leaflet and even picket on the "streets" of a shopping mall.

But it's a good thing I didn't try to exercise my inalienable rights last Friday because recent court decisions have taken them back. My right to leaflet or speak on property as public as the Walmart parking lot now depends, I just learned, on various, and still evolving, state laws. You can probably guess in what direction most have been evolving.

But why should I, an outsider, do the leafleting for a union organizing campaign? Since the 1930s it's been illegal to fire employees simply because they join or promote a union. In that sense Walmart employes have free speech guarantees inside the store that I lack in the parking lot. But at the start of the 'OUR Walmart' movement the company fired about a score of the group's early members. Despite the law, that's a common employer move and it makes good sense. Labor law violations are policed by the National Labor Relations Board. Presidential appointments to that board have been even more delayed than appointments to the federal judiciary. Maybe the recent change of Senate filibuster rules will alter that—maybe not.

As it stands now, an employer who fires someone for joining or speaking in favor of a union may—just may—have to give the fired worker some weeks of back pay a few years hence. But what does that matter once the union has been defeated?

Employees organize because they want to improve their working conditions and their pay. It's effective to show them that joining a union is a quick way to reduce your pay to zero. There's no reason to be subtle about it.

Maybe that's why it was easy for my husband to snap a picture [attached] of two Walmart people observing and photographing the demonstrators. Like the Pinkertons of earlier strike busting tradition, they have no reason to hide the fact that they have their eyes on you. But some of Walmart's neo-Pinkerton surveillance capacities still surprised me.

At one point the woman with the camera checked a hand held "device" and told the man with her that the demonstrators across the highway were about to "moblize."

I don't know if she got her information through sophisticated tapping of the organizers or merely following our twitter feeds. But it reminded me that I personally have more to fear from corporate espionage then NSA spying. Unless you're a fundamentalist terrorist, (or an American who will never need a raise,) you probably do, too.

Barbara Garson

Barbara Garson is the author of two classic books about work: All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work. Her new book is "Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live"


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