Posing as volunteers. Stealing documents. Dumpster diving. Planting electronic bugs. Hacking computers. Tapping phones and voicemail. Planting false information. Trailing family members. Threatening reporters. Hiring cops, CIA officers and combat veterans to do all these dirty deeds—and counting on little pushback from law enforcement, mainstream media or Congress.
These are some of the ways that many of America’s largest corporations have spied on nonprofits for years, according to a detailed new report from the Center for Corporate Policy tracing decades of corporate espionage where tactics developed for American intelligence agencies have been imported by a long list of corporate giants for use against progressives.
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“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Walmart, Monsanto, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Chevron, Burger King, McDonald’s, Shell, BP, BEA, Sasol, Brown & Williamson and E.ON have all been linked to espionage against non-profit organizations, activists and whistleblowers,” the report said, noting that its targets are “environmental, anti-war, public-interest, consumer, food safety, pesticide reform, nursing home reform, gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms-control groups.”
“There’s so many different tactics,” said Gary Ruskin, the center’s director and the report’s author. “It’s so important to talk about the effects on our democracy and privacy. Civic groups can’t work if they’re surrounded by serious espionage activities. And citizens don’t lose their rights to privacy if they disagree with corporations.”
Compared to Europe, where some of the same corporate players—and their staff or hired guns—have landed in court, been shamed in the media and even given jail terms, spying against non-profits has flourished with little legal consequence in America. The Justice Department almost never investigates. Nor does Congress look at the practice, which clearly would be illegal with its break-ins, thefts, threats, slander and racketeering.
“If corporate espionage is done with impunity, or near impunity, it invites more corporate espionage,” Ruskin said. “The Department of Justice needs to investigate and prosecute where warranted, and Congress needs to hold hearings.”
AlterNet counted a dozen dirty tactics and trends used by corporate spies, whether inside “security” or “threat-assessment” staff, or a mix of outside public relations and law firms and other covert operations specialists. These trends start at the most basic level, like pretending to be a volunteer, but escalate to cyber warfare and even blackmail.
1. Posing as volunteers.
For most of the 1990s, Greenpeace was repeatedly targeted due to its campaign to phase out the use of chlorine in making plastics and paper. In 2008, investigative reporter James Ridgeway reported on a trove of documents obtained from an ex-employee of a private security firm, Becket Brown International. The papers described how BBI planted “undercover operatives” in many environmental groups, with a heavy emphasis on Greenpeace. BBI wanted everything and anything about its anti-corporate strategies.
In late 2010, Greenpeace sued BBI’s backer—Dow Chemical—in federal district court, citing anti-racketeering law. Its suit noted that “Mary Lou Sapone, a BBI consultant and experienced infiltrator of nonprofits, posed as a prospective volunteer” at its Washington, D.C. headquarters. BBI knew the office layout, key codes to open doors, and much more, the suit said. “BBI procured and held highly confidential Greenpeace records, including, for example, confidential personal, financial and employment records—which could only have been secured from Greenpeace’s offices.”
Greenpeace was not alone in being infiltrated by corporate spies. “From the mid-1990s through much of the 2000s, Mary McFate was a prominent volunteer for gun-control groups,” the Center For Corporate Policy report said.
“She ran for a seat on the board of directors of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and worked closely with other national gun-control organizations, such as the Violence Policy Center. She was director of federal legislation for States United to Prevent Gun Violence. She was deeply knowledgeable about the plans and actions of these and other national gun conteol groups. They, however, did not know that her other identity was Mary Lou Sapone, who since the late 1980s had been paid by corporations to spy on citizens groups.”
Sapone, according to BBI documents cited by the report, had billed the National Rifle Association “nearly $80,000” for 11 months of work during this time.
2. Dumpster diving.
What corporate spies could not gather by walking into meetings and offices as volunteers, they got by dumpster diving—stealing bags of trash and sifting through them. Greenpeace’s lawsuit said that BBI and others raided the dumpsters outside its Washington offices more than 120 times. What was especially notable about these raids is that a local Washington police officer was part of BBI’s team, flashing his badge to gain access to dumpsters kept behind locked fences. BBI also had Baltimore police on its payroll.
Greenpeace wasn’t alone in having its trash targeted by corporate spies. The report lists other environmental groups, as well as David Fenton, who started a PR firm that represents progressives. His home was watched by BBI and had its trash stolen after midnight, the report said, adding that his firm’s office also was broken into a decade ago, “during which boxes of files and two laptops were stolen. The culprits were never caught.”
3. Tapping phones and voicemail.
Greenpeace’s anti-racketeering suit—most of which was thrown out by a federal court—also talked about other firms spying for Dow Chemical. One was a company run by ex-National Security Agency officials, TriWest Investigations, which procured “phone call records of Greenpeace employees or contractors,” the report said, add that cellphones given to Greenpeace employees were also tapped. “BBI’s notes to its clients ‘include verbatim quotes attributed to specific Greenpeace employees.’”
4. Casing offices, stealing files.
These first three tactics—posing as volunteers, stealing trash and wiretapping—allowed a team of corporate spies, including the supposedly credible PR firm, Ketchum, to steal all kinds of documents about different Greenpeace projects. The corporate espionage report says the same tactics also were used “on behalf of Kraft,” to “provide intelligence about organizations opposed to genetically engineered food.” The report notes these tactics were not confined to Washington, but were also used against activists in Louisiana opposing petrochemical plant pollution, immigrant farm workers in Florida working for a Burger King supplier, Northern Californians opposing a new garbage dump, and nursing home activists in Maryland.
5. Impersonating activists.
As businesses moved online, so did the practice of breaking into websites and servers. In January 2011, the computer security firm HBGary Federal claimed that it identified the leaders of the hacker collective Anonymous. In response, the collective broke into the firm’s e-mail and other accounts and put the contents online. In those files were details of how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had been working to discredit its nonprofit critics.
Unlike Greenpeace’s dumpster-diving foes, HBGary and two high-tech firms, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies—which both have multi-million-dollar contracts with U.S. military and intelligence agencies—created a plan to infiltrate U.S. Chamber Watch, which monitors the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They proposed creating false documents—basically, bait—to see if the watchdog group would use them, as part of an effort to discredit it. The corporate consultants’ memos also discussed creating a “fake insider persona” at another progressive group, Change To Win, to release its forgeries. “Both instances will prove that US Chamber Watch cannot be trusted,” its memo said.
7. Hacking and disrupting computers.
The trio of coporate spies, who call themselves “Team Themis,” also “proposed to wage electronic warfare against U.S. Chamber Watch and its allies,” the report said. The team boasted of its capacity to place “malware” and “custom bots” in Chamber Watch’s computers. These and other details about Team Themis’ proposal were cited in a bar association ethics complaint filed against lawyers working with the corporate spies, the report said.
8. Trailing family members.
The high-tech team of thugs also boasted of following family members of public-interest activists and journalists, according to their proposals unmasked by Anonymous. “Other e-mails show that HBGary Federal investigated the critics of the U.S. Chamber of commerce, including their spouses, children, religious activities and personal lives—and even gethered photos of them,” the report said, citing additional reporting on its strategy from theNew York Times and ThinkProgress.org.
“They propose to ‘use the following tactics to mitigate the effect of adversarial groups,’” it said. “These tactics include: ‘Discredit, Confuse, Shame, Combat, Infiltrate, Fracture’ They propose using these tactics against the Center for American Progress, MoveOn.org, Velvet Revolution, Move To Amend, JTMP (Justice Through Music Project), U.S. Chamber Watch, Brad’s Blog, Joe Trippi, Brave New Films, New Left Media, Agit-PoP, Courage Campaign and the Ruckus Society.”
These were not empty threats. In early 2011, while substituting for a nationally syndicated talk radio host, Mike Malloy, and aggressively talking about the Chamber’s anti-activist campaign, Brad Friedman’s BradBlog website was knocked offline for several days. His personal information was also displayed in Team Themis’ proposal.
9. Adding blackmail to disinformation campaign.
In late 2010, Julian Assange, then the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, announced he was poised to “take down” a big U.S. bank by revealing a corruption scandal. Bank of America thought it was the target, and received a Team Themis proposal that included spreading “disinformation” about WikiLeaks, creating forged documents “and then call out the error,” and a cyber attack against its “infrastructure,” the report said. But the Team Themis proposal also suggested making “an implicit threat to ruin the career of Glenn Greenwald, a prominent journalist, if he continues to support Wikileaks.”
Equally disturbing, the U.S. Department of Justice apparently told Bank of America’s top lawyer that the bank contact the law firm working with Team Themis, Hunton & Williams, “according to an e-mail chain viewed by theTech Herald. If this is true, it raises questions of… how much Justice Department officials knew of and even supported corporate espionage against WikiLeaks and its allies,” the Center for Corporate Policy report said.
10. Posing as journalists.
Another side of the corporate espionage universe is posing as a reporter to quickly gather information about activists. In 2010, Kroll, which is a private investigations firm, tried to recruit a journalist, Mary Cuddehe, as a “corporate spy for Chevron,” the report noted. It “offered her $20,000 to pose as a journalist while conducting interviews to undermine a study of health effects of the [330-million gallon] oil spill [around Lago Agrio, Ecuador]” by Texaco (which was aquired by Chevron). She turned down the money and instead wrote an article about the experience for theAtlantic.
11. Hiring cops, ex-spooks and veterans.
There are other dimensions to corporate espionage against nonprofits. One is relying on members of the national security establishment—notably ex-CIA or NSA employees—as well as moonlightling local police, and Iraq-Afghanistan war veterans to do the spying, the report said. Many of the proposals for anti-activist campaigns tout these credentials, citing ex-military resumes as they seek fees ranging from hundreds of thousands to several million dollars. “Even active-duty CIA operatives are allowed to sell their expertise,” it said. “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.”
12. Little pushback from law enforcement.
Hiring cops, spooks and vets to do corporate dirty work leads to one more trend enabling corporate espionage to flourish. That is a lack of accountability or legal consequence for espionage that clearly breaks domestic law, such as stealing documents, wiretapping, etc. In France or England, where some of these same actvities have come to the attention of authorities, those responsible have been prosecuted and some perpetrators have even gone to jail. Not so in the U.S.
“Hiring former intelligence, military and law enforcement officials has its advantages,” the report notes. “First, these officials may be able to use their status as a shield. For example, current law enforcement officials may be disinclined to investigate or prosecute former intelligence or law enforcement agents… In effect, the revolving door for intelligence, military and law enforcement officials is yet another aspect of the corporate capture of federal agencies, and another government subsidy for corporations.”
What Americans Don’t Know
As detailed as the Center for Corporate Policy report is, author Gary Ruskin says most of the information was obtained “by accident.” It wasn’t freely given. It was the result of lawsuits, a handful of whisteblowers, mistakes by those hired to do the corporate espionage, boasts in trade press and other somewhat random sources.
But even so, there is a dark playbook that comes into view. Nonprofits are scrutinzed for vulnerabilities. Computers are hacked. Documents are copied or stolen. Phone calls and voice mail are secretly recorded. Personal dossiers are compiled. Disinformation is created and spread. Websites are targeted and taken down. Blackmail is attempted. Just as bad, Ruskin says, the Justice Department and Congress look the other way.
“The entire subject is veiled in secrecy,” his report says. “In recent years, there have been few serious journalistic efforts—and no serious government efforts—to come to terms with the reality of corporate spying against nonprofits.”
Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting” (AlterNet Books, 2008).