Could The NSA Spy On Environmental Activists?

Protesters opposing the Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House (credit:

The surveillance programs revealed in the National Security Agency (NSA) leaks last month appear to be primarily focused on terrorism. Details of domestic communications were gathered to create a database for that purpose. But with the government increasingly classifying peaceful protest movements as potential terrorist threats, does that mean environmental activists could be spied on?

Nafeez Ahmed at The Guardian pointed out that internal reports and documents about U.S. military preparedness for emergency situations have started including planning for domestic unrest related to climate change disasters. Also, since the economic crash in 2008, the U.S. security apparatus has placed a significant amount of scrutiny on political activists — often in conjunction with corporate interests.

Heavily redacted documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local law enforcement often categorized the Occupy movement as a prospective terrorist threat, and collaborated with banking sector to monitor the groups. And just as the banking sector had a vested interest in categorizing the Occupy movement as possible terrorists, so do oil and gas companies have a vested interest in discrediting peaceful protest movements opposing fossil fuel projects. In both cases, the success of those political activists would negatively impact business interests.

Documents released by Bold Nebraska, a group opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, suggest that corporate interests are working with local law enforcement and the FBI to push for the application of “anti-terrorism laws” against activists. The group obtained a series of presentations given by subsidiaries of TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, to local law enforcement through a FOIA request. The presentations included suggested criminal charges to be laid against protesters engaging in civil disobedience and specifically highlighted the option of contacting District Attorneys about pursuing terrorist-related charges for obstructing or sabotaging critical infrastructure.

Sadly, the classification of climate activists as terrorists is not a new phenomenon — nor is the surveillance of them as such. Three activists with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network were watched for thirteen months starting in March 2005 after being placed in a Maryland State Police data base as being “suspected of involvement in terrorism” although the police had “no evidence whatsoever of any involvement in violent crime.” The state eventually realized their error and offered the activists a chance to review the information collected about them, but the fact remains that their non-violent activism made them a target for government surveillance.

To be clear, there’s no evidence at this point to show that the NSA is using its broad anti-terrorism surveillance powers to pursue climate activists. But given the lack of details about government snooping programs and the pattern of corporate interest in classifying non-violent political activists as terrorist threats, the speculation that the government might be keeping an uncomfortably close eye on peaceful environmental activists doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility.

38 Responses to Could The NSA Spy On Environmental Activists?

  1. Doug Bostrom says:

    NSA is the big ear. It’s the FBI and others who’ll be doing the really irritating and un-American creeping around in our business of civics. And –of course– the FBI etc. spy on us, any of us who don’t stay within a narrow box of acceptable civic participation and discourse.

  2. Raul M. says:

    You mean they might learn something about the climate? You mean they might learn something about people’s reactions to the climate? You mean they might cherry pick for reasons to oppose reasonable reactions to climate change?!? Another reason law enforcement needs to have light colored clothing that is even reflective of infrared head from the sun so they may stay cool headed. No need for such hot headed ways when they could be wearing a cool cap.

  3. Raul M. says:

    That is infrared heat, and it should be better to wear protective clothing.

  4. Raul M. says:

    Nope, I never did have a teacher who was ok with cheating on the tests. It really is important for people to learn the truth about the weather and how it will aggregate into the climate. Needless to say people will get hot headed from time to time as it is a difficult reality when the weather goes bad.

  5. S. D. Jeffries says:

    In answer to the question in the headline, the NSA can, apparently, spy on anyone or any group they want to. Laws are written in favor of government oversight – Constitution be damned – and the laws that rein in government, military or corporate actions are rewritten to make incursions into our privacy and 4th Amendment rights legal. No protections from any branch of government.

    Is it time to emigrate yet?

  6. prokaryotes says:

    Other plans targeted social organizations and advocacy groups. Separate from the plan to target Greenwald and WikiLeaks, HBGary was part of a consortia that submitted a proposal to develop a “persona management” system for the United States Air Force, that would allow one user to control multiple online identities for commenting in social media spaces, thus giving the appearance of grassroots support or opposition to certain policies.

    The data dump from the HBGary hack was so vast that no one person could sort through it alone. So Brown decided to crowdsource the effort. He created a wiki page, called it ProjectPM, and invited other investigative journalists to join in. Under Brown’s leadership, the initiative began to slowly untangle a web of connections between the US government, corporations, lobbyists and a shadowy group of private military and information security consultants.

    One connection was between Bank of America and the Chamber of Commerce. WikiLeaks had claimed to possess a large cache of documents belonging to Bank of America. Concerned about this, Bank of America approached the United States Department of Justice. The DOJ directed it to the law and lobbying firm Hunton and Williams, which does legal work for Wells Fargo and General Dynamics and also lobbies for Koch Industries, Americans for Affordable Climate Policy, Gas Processors Association, Entergy among many other firms. The DoJ recommended that Bank of America hire Hunton and Williams, explicitly suggesting Richard Wyatt as the person to work with. Wyatt, famously, was the lead attorney in the Chamber of Commerce’s lawsuit against the Yes Men.

  7. prokaryotes says:

    From the UK

    How can we invest our trust in a government that spies on us?
    We should not fear some Orwellian future state where we’re subjected to total electronic scrutiny – it’s our present reality

    Police and prosecutors also failed to disclose, during two trials of climate-change activists, that an undercover cop called Mark Kennedy had secretly taped their meetings, and that his recordings exonerated the protesters. Twenty people were falsely convicted. Those convictions were later overturned.

    If the state is prepared to abuse its powers and instruments so widely and gravely in cases such as this, where there is a high risk of detection, and if it is prepared to intrude so far into people’s lives that its officers live with activists and father their children, what is it not prepared to do while spying undetectably on our private correspondence?

  8. prokaryotes says:

    National police unit monitors 9,000 ‘domestic extremists’
    Officers familiar with workings of unit indicate that many of campaigners listed on database have no criminal record

    In recent years the unit is known to have focused its resources on spying on environmental campaigners, particularly those engaged in direct action and civil disobedience to protest against climate change.

  9. prokaryotes says:

    Frackalypse Now: Mark Fiore Spoofs Oil Industry’s PSYOPS Campaign To Derail Fracking “Insurgency”

  10. prokaryotes says:

    Internet Privacy in Canada: Is it Possible or Are We Already “Out of Control”?

    In April of this year, the Human Rights Council at the UN presented a report on the urgent need for laws that regulate Internet surveillance practices to protect human rights standards.

    In a recent interview for the Guardian, Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, pointed out that, even if you’ve got nothing to hide, “you are being watched and recorded… you don’t have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to arrive under suspicion by anybody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time to scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made.”

  11. Joseph Dillard says:

    Anybody in the environmental movement who doesn’t think that they are getting TLC treatment from James Clapper’s Orcs needs to go hide out in the Shire and keep thinking Happy Thoughts. The Eye of Mordor is upon you. It is upon all of us, and no, there is no immigration solution. i live in Berlin where Merkel is outraged. Outraged, I tell you. And she has been and continues to share intelligence data with Sauron.

  12. prokaryotes says:

    Actually surveillance is not a big of secret

    An article from 1989 outlines the magnitude…(use google translate for english version)

    New is that surveillance is used to target people who are concerned about climate change and that some try to frame peaceful protest as an act of terrorism…

  13. chlduvth70s says:

    Could the NSA spy on environmental activists? Hmm. Let’s see. Is the Pope Catholic? Does a bear sh-t in the woods? Do cops like donuts?

  14. DarthVader says:

    Could The NSA Spy On Environmental Activists? The question is rather; why should not the NSA be spying on environmental activists?

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The NSA, FBI, CIA et al are not there to protect the US population nor The Constitution. They exist to protect the power and privileges of the tiny ruling elite, the money power and their political employees. The NSA monitors everything, so to say that they are not actively monitoring ‘Green extremists’ (in Rightwing hatespeak that means all environmentalists, save, perhaps, the biggest sell-outs)is pure bunkum.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The FISA Court is a notorious rubber-stamp. What the security establishment wants, they get.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The most chilling aspect of the steadily evolving Orwellian ‘National Security’ state in the USA (and its tentacles are also global), is the privatisation of the network of surveillance, control and repression to legions of private contractors, many of whom (the ones we know about) are run by nakedly fascistic fanatics. When The Collapse hits top gear, say in five or ten years, these, plus their allies on the far Right, in militias and the like, will be a real deadly dangerous menace. And it will not be good to wait for ‘the authorities’ to intervene, because, increasingly, these nutters are ‘the authorities’.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Not doing what you are told, questioning our suicidal path, not being silent, consuming, reproducing, then dying, is all ‘extremist’ behaviour as far as the totalitarian Right is concerned. Current developments are inevitable. A ruthless, violent, insatiably greedy ruling caste will never, ever, simply surrender to the masses who they despise, when the system becomes no longer sustainable. I would say that at the first sign of real ‘green terrorism’, or, in its absence, when the first ‘false flag’ attack is launched by provocateurs, the repression will be unprecedented. The atmosphere of manic, unbridled, hatred being fomented in the Rightwing MSM against environmentalists is softening up the public for a big purge, make no mistake.I can imagine quite a few ‘green extremists’ getting the Manning, Snowden, Assange treatment for ‘thought crime’, in the not too distant future.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And Ban, the puppet UN Secretary-General, has been quoted as denouncing Snowden during a meeting in Iceland. Meanwhile Bolivian President Morales jet was forced to land in Vienna, and illegally searched, looking for Snowden, while a protected person, a Head of State, was treated with racist contempt, by those working to Obama’s orders. ‘Good things of the day begin to droop and drowse, While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse’.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And Winter is coming.

  21. prokaryotes says:

    Well, the difference here is that at least some guys worry about climate change too. And some of them understand that we have to combat climate change. So i guess, this time might be different.

    There is no alternative to reducing our emissions drastically. This is why we require action and that is why we require activists.

    US national security advisor says climate change is threat, calls for Emissions Reductions

  22. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Terrorism is such a handy cover-all word. Our language started changing after 9/11. Groups like the PKK and Tamil Tigers used to known by their names but ‘terrorists’ over took them all and these days, is thrown around with gay abandon. The motivation behind the strategy is transparent, ME

  23. Prokaryotes, Mulga, ME,

    We seem to be the most attuned to this eventuality. It’s a main theme of A Change in the Weather:

    None of them were sure whether Out of the Blue warranted surveillance or whether they among the other members across the country would merit such scrutiny. And how would they be spied upon and by whom? Somebody occupied the house almost all the time, so no outsider would have the opportunity to plant a bug or a camera. Jason said that government agents could eavesdrop using parabolic microphones aimed at the windows and read the minute vibrations of voices in the panes of glass. But no one had ever noticed any strange people coming or going among the neighbors, whom they made a point of getting to know, offering to help with errands or yardwork (many of them were elderly), and sometimes sharing food in bulk, like sacks of oatmeal or bushels of apples (some warm-weather varieties still grew in Sonoma and in the Sierras if the blossoms survived the heavy spring rains). There were no Homelander block wardens, as there were in other parts of the state, even as close as Ash’s mother’s home in Antioch. So she imagined he was telling them exactly what he had done…

  24. Merrelyn Emery says:

    New laws have popped up too Change, as well as language. Some appear to have no real current justification and so must be there for potential eventualities. Far too many coincidences, ME

  25. Stephen Watson says:

    If the USA is anything like the UK in this respect then the answer is a resounding “absolutely” – here the police infiltrated environmental groups over years, formed relationships with some of the women in the groups and in one case fathered a child! Unbelievable. Read on …

  26. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Well duh!

    I am under no illusion that my nom de doom provides any sort of protection at all in keeping my identity secret from the authorities.

    NSA CIA FBI please note: Predicting revolution and chaos does not mean I want it to happen.

  27. Leland Palmer says:

    Oh, yes, of course the NSA can and does spy on us – except for me, I’m not that important. But the leaders of the environmental movement are likely extensively spied on.

    Whistle blower leaks back during the Bush administration revealed that there are Narus supercomputers installed in major communication centers, with semantic analysis software capable of montitoring billions of messages at once.

    Google Narus, and with a little digging you’ll find this corporation was initially financed by a group of investors including JPMorgan Chase- the core financial elite of this country.

    So, yes, we live in a surveillance society. That surveillance is not primarily to detect terrorists, because that would result in an unmanageable number of false positive results.

    But if there is a known address for a political target, for example for Elliot Spitzer who was trying to crack down on Wall Street speculation before the recent crash, such a system would be ideal for finding out who he sleeps with. Which is likely what happened- it was revealed that he visited $5000/night hookers, and his political career was over. Or John Edwards, who was unfaithful to his wife- and whose political career was ended by that scandal.

    So, for domestic environmental activists, with known names and addresses, this software could easily construct social network diagrams from phone and email records, and dig up useful dirt. It would be trivial for a system like this to be used for this purpose.

    So, yes, we are under varying degrees of surveillance and no, the spying programs are not for finding terrorists, in my opinion. And yes, likely information from this system leaks into elite hands, and is used to maintain political control.

    As secret police surveillance has been used throughout history, this information is primarily gathered to maintain domestic control, I think.

  28. kermit says:

    Oh, the sell-outs will be watched too, but they won’t be harassed as long as they stay honestly sold-out. NSA et al are probably at the stage where they can’t watch everyone, but I go on the working assumption that everything I do online is recorded and can be examined retroactively if I catch their attention.

  29. kermit says:

    I seem to remember a Norwegian who was arrested at home by Norwegian police because the FBI wanted him for copyright infringement. He copied music illegally by USA law. The FBI were enforcing the entrenched music industries’ attempts to forestall 21st century information tech.

    No, we Yanks have a moral obligation to clean up our act in government and literally clean up our pollution, especially the greenhouse gases. And there’s nowhere to run, anyway, from either problem.

  30. Mark e says:

    Nonviolence = Speaking truth & Pleading guilty

    So why should anyone claiming to be nonviolent object?

  31. Leland Palmer says:

    Perhaps because they don’t want private information to be public knowledge, and perhaps used to end their career?

    Remember Van Jones, and how this “good green man” was forced out of the Obama administration because he dared to question the official explanation of the events of 9/11?

    If a long list of things could be used by a corporate press to destroy a target’s career, doesn’t this mean that most people would have something to hide?

  32. Robert Bristow says:

    Am I getting paranoid ?, I used to be an active member of the CND, British Labour Party and follow climate change sites. A member of the NSA in the U.S.A checked out my social network profile (Linkedin) (reported by the who’s viewed your profile utility). I have no links with the U.S.A and do not know the member so I am suspicious although I’m sure they could check me out without me knowing. Privacy is a thing of the past I guess.

  33. Calamity Jean says:

    Of course the NSA is spying on environmental activists! Duhh!

  34. Although I am extremely uncomfortable with the NSA spying on any American (whether it be a group or an individual), there is a HUGE difference between monitoring someone and actually impeding their activities. Presently, even if the NSA is spying on environmental groups, I don’t think there is any plan to harass them into changing what they do like the way TransCanada cronies encouraged local law enforcement to arrest anti-Keystone XL protesters.

  35. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Your observation reminds me of a favourite aphorism of John Norton, a 19th century Sydney publisher and bon vivant. ‘An honest cop is one who, when bought, stays bought’.

  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The biggest ‘terrorists’ by far are, and have always been, the state terrorists of the Western imperialist powers, who have terrorised and exterminate millions over centuries, to this day. The ‘War on Terror’TM is really a War of Terror, primarily, at present, being waged against Moslems, but with plain intent to be turned on all states that do not ‘tremble and obey’ the Masters of Full Spectrum Dominance.

  37. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Looooong in the planning, and those who pointed it out invariably denounced, by the planners’ MSM thugs, as ‘conspiracy theorists’.

  38. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Wanna bet? The NSA won’t do the harassing. They’ll pass the info on to those practised in the art.