Infiltrating the Campaign: Corporate Spies in Activism

By Patrick O’Keeffe

As direct action coordinated by activist groups has proven to be an effective measure of shutting down corporate operations, governments and corporations have increasingly sought to gain information on the activities of groups engaging in such activities. This has given rise to the development of numerous corporations involved in gathering intelligence on activist groups, often through means of infiltration.

Spy via Shutterstock
In an article entitled “Corporate Spooks: Private security contractors infiltrate social justice organisations,” Paul Demko spoke with John Stauber, founder of the Center for Media and Democracy. According to Stauber, “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.” Demko claims that due to low budgets and limited resources, the conducting of background checks on new volunteers is not always the number one priority.

Writing for Mother Jones, investigative reporter James Ridgway uncovered the work of Becket Brown International (BBI, later known as S2i), a private intelligence company run by former secret service operatives. Speaking with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, Ridgway explained the process of corporations hiring private intelligence organisations:

“What’s going on here is that you have the major corporation that’s doing something like in the case of Kraft making the GE corn tacos, and then they hire a PR firm, and the PR firm hires BBI or something like that, and then BBI hires what you call subcontractors or cutouts. Subcontractors go along and look at trash…”

These subcontractors, as stated by Ridgway, were often police. In the instance where BBI was contracted to seek intelligence on Greenpeace, members of the Washington DC police force were engaged as contractors. Ridgway’s investigation led him to a key investor in BBI, who provided him with access to thousands of documents which linked the private intelligence company to police from DC and also Baltimore.

According to Amy Goodman, the company was contracted by Ketchum, a public relations company which listed Dow Chemical and Kraft Foods (owner of Taco Bell) amongst its clients. Writing for The Ecologist, Tom Levitt states that Greenpeace “accuses Dow Chemical of paying the private security firm BBI to secure confidential information to ‘anticipate and frustrate’ Greenpeace’s public education and direct action campaigns. It followed reports by the campaign group in the late 1990s that identified Dow as the ‘world’s largest root-source of dioxin’, a cancer-causing chemical.” Furthermore, Goodman states that BBI  performed work for Nichols-Dezenhall, a public relations company that was contracted by Condea Vista, “the chemical manufacturing firm that in 1994 leaked up to forty-seven million pounds of ethylene dichloride, a suspected carcinogen, into the Calcasieu River in Louisiana.”

Cases of corporate spying on activist groups in the United Kingdom have also attained significant prominence. Perhaps one of the most publicised instances of this would be the case of Vericola, a private intelligence company run by Rebecca Todd. As reported in The Guardian, the services of Vericola were contracted by power company E.ON, coal producer Scottish Resources and Scottish Power. Essentially, Rebecca Todd infiltrated a number of activist groups, attaining access to private email lists under the guise of being a concerned and committed activist. Tilly Gifford, writing for SpinWatch, spoke with Yoshka Pundrik from the ‘Climate Camp for Action’, who claims that Vericola agents “couldn’t have gotten subscribed without attending our meetings. These were internal (email) lists where, for example, we strategized about how to stop new coal-fired power stations being built by E.ON.”

According to Gifford, “The repertoire of tactics employed by private security firms is vast. They range from acting as agent provocateur to blacklisting. They can lead to pre-empting and counter-spinning protest, studying the nature of campaigns and how best to resist them. Press releases and programmes can be made ready, softening the impact of the actions. Actions can be sabotaged with tip-offs. Redistributing resources such as security guards can be one outcome of such practices. ‘Internal reports’ about individuals, complete with pictures can be another.”

Paul Demko highlighted the work of the Florida-based Diplomatic Tactical Services, headed by Cara Schaffer. In a less than successful infiltration attempt, Schaffer presented herself to the Student/Farm worker Alliance as a bright eyed college student wanting to do some good. The group, which worked in conjunction with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, had been fighting a dispute with Burger King over tomato pickers’ wages. Diplomatic Tactical Services had been contracted by Burger King to gather intelligence on the group, which in turn, had become curious about the motives of the over-zealous Schaffer. A quick internet search revealed Schaffer as a corporate spy, which had serious ramifications for Burger King, with two executives fired as a result and the company left with little option but to meet the demands of the workers.

Through the 1990s, a German film maker named Manfred Schlickenrieder documented the activities of Greenpeace, taking hundreds of hours of footage. However, this work never resulted in the creation of the supposed documentaries that Schlickenrieder was working towards. As revealed by Maurice Chittenden and Nicholas Rufford, working for The Sunday Times, Schlickenrieder was a spy, hired by private intelligence company Hakluyt. Hakluyt commenced operations in 1996, when Mike Reynolds, an MI6 operative who had been head of station in Germany. Reynolds was contacted by Shell, who was seeking information on the activist groups opposing their activities in Europe.

According to Chittenden and Rufford, Schlickenrieder “had worked for the German foreign intelligence service gathering information about terrorist groups, including the Red Army Faction. He fronted a film production company called Gruppe 2, based in Munich, but he also worked in London and Zurich. His company was a one-man band with a video camera making rarely seen documentaries.” For Greenpeace, who were engaged in a campaign against BP at the time, Schlickenrieder’s work was completely disarming. Fouad Hamdan, the communications director of Greenpeace Germany, told Chittenden and Rufford:

“He got information about our planned Atlantic Frontier campaign to focus on the climate change issue and the responsibility of BP. BP knew everything. They were not taken by surprise…Manfred filmed and interviewed all the time, but now we realize we never saw anything.”

Another high profile case in the United Kingdom involved Mark Kennedy, otherwise known as Mark Stone. As stated by James Bargent writing for Toward Freedom, “Mark Kennedy was a policeman who had been working deep undercover for the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). The NPOIU is one of three specialist police units, alongside the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) and the National Domestic Extremism Team (NDET), dedicated to tackling what they label ‘domestic extremism’.” Kennedy infiltrated animal rights groups under the alias of ‘Mark Stone’. Bargent spoke with ‘Steph’, an activist who became close to Kennedy. “If he said something about politics it was about trying to raise the game, or promote militant responses,” claimed ‘Steph’. Kennedy’s cover was blown when an activist found his passport, revealing the non-existence of Mark Stone.

Infiltration of activist groups by police and government agencies is not confined to the UK. The Sydney Morning Herald revealed that in Australia, Minister for Energy and Resources, Martin Ferguson, pressed Attorney General Robert McLelland in 2009 to use “the intelligence-gathering services of the Australian Federal Police” to find information of potential protests that might disrupt coal mining operations. In reply to the urgings of Minister Ferguson, McLelland stated that the Australian Police Force “continually monitors the activities of issues-motivated groups and individuals who may target establishments through direct action, or action designed to disrupt of interfere with essential services.”

This article has documented a few cases where spies working for corporate intelligence organisations have been unmasked; however the likelihood that there are numerous, as yet undetected, corporate spies infiltrating environment groups is very high. Though there are examples where blunt tactics have been used by spies that have been detected with relative ease, the fact that there are highly skilled spies targeting activist groups should be cause for considerable concern.

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