I Spy a Spy

Paranoia will destroy ya.

I’ll admit that I want to roll my eyes when I hear about the security precautions some environmentalists take in the course of planning a protest. Removing batteries from cellphones to prevent being tracked, using email encryption, or creating codenames for demonstrations strikes me as self-flattery. I mean, greens can’t get a watered down climate bill through the US Senate; it’s not like we pose a threat to the status quo that deserves being spied on. And – more to the point – we’re not doing anything wrong. Environmental activism is part of the great American tradition of dissent.

Well, my bad. It’s not paranoia when you are, in fact, being watched.

As Adam Federman reports in our cover story, corporations and law enforcement agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe are spying on environmentalists. Some of the espionage recalls the darkest days of the FBI’s COINTELPRO. When a high-level FBI official describes the animal rights and environmental movements as the “highest domestic terrorism priorities,” clearly a criminalization of dissent is underway. Some elements of the twenty-first century surveillance are new – and even more troubling than the sixties- and seventies-era spying. Most worrisome is the way in which government and corporate surveillance of citizen-activists are now so intertwined.

Here’s Exhibit A: In 2010 it was revealed that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania paid a security firm to track fracking opponents, and then shared the firm’s threat assessment reports with hundreds of gas industry employees.

Make no mistake: This is a serious violation of democratic principles. The US is in the midst of a heated debate about fracking. The government (or “the state,” if you prefer) is supposed to be a neutral arbiter in that public dispute. Instead, Pennsylvania officials decided that the interests of drilling companies were more legitimate than the interests of gas industry critics. The gas companies deserved protection; concerned citizens deserved being spied on.

At the risk of going too far, I have a hard time not thinking of the classic Mussolini quote: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.” The Pennsylvania espionage shows how that merger can undermine people’s right to free speech.

Just as disturbing is how some gas companies view their fellow citizens. At a 2011 conference an employee of Anadarko Petroleum described fracking opponents as an “insurgency” and recommended his colleagues read the US Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Surely the spirit of democracy is corrupted when fossil fuel companies think Pennsylvania townships are like Al-Qaeda strongholds – enemies to be crushed or co-opted.

What’s to be done? At the very least, we need more scrutiny of the government’s intelligence contracting to ensure that taxpayer dollars aren’t going to security firms that spy on US citizens. In the meantime, we should be loud and proud about our constitutionally protected activism. Since we’re being watched anyway, let’s be sure to put on a good show.

graphic of Jason Mark signature

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