To the water protectors who tried to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the fact that law enforcement and security firms coordinated efforts to undermine the camps is old news. For those less familiar, the news site The Intercept is providing new details on the behind-the-scenes surveillance and public relations operations by the government and private security.
The Intercept received leaked documents from a contractor who worked with TigerSwan, a private security firm hired by Energy Transfer Partners to coordinate DAPL security. The Intercept just published its second story in a three-part series.
TigerSwan is largely made up of special operations military veterans, (which tells you a lot about the approach Energy Transfer Partners wanted to take in the conflict). TigerSwan “was formed during the war in Iraq and incorporated its counterinsurgency tactics into its effort to suppress an indigenous-led movement centered around protection of water,” The Interept story said.
The story raises serious questions about law enforcement’s impartiality and the “Surveillance-Industrial Complex.”
Here are a few takeaways.
First, the story reveals TigerSwan’s callous calculation
According to The Intercept:
TigerSwan … expressed concerns about the impact the death of a protester might have on the pipeline project. “The use of force or death of a protester or rioter will result in the immediate halt to DAPL operations, which will likely permanently halt the entire project,” the PowerPoint presentations TigerSwan shared with law enforcement warned.
Comment: TigerSwan’s assessment seems to show no concern for the human life, just the pipeline. Perhaps this is the result of viewing the conflict through a terrorism lens.
Second, the documents show more concern about the PR impact of injuries suffered by water protectors than the people themselves.
Law enforcement and water protectors had a major standoff on a cold November night at Backwater Bridge. Water protector Sophia Wilansky, 21, nearly lost her arm due to an explosion. Multiple witnesses said she was hit by a police munition.
According to the leaked documents, the FBI had an informant in the camp. Law enforcement pushed a different story line:
U.S. Attorney’s Office National Security Intelligence Specialist Terry Van Horn sent an email to members of various federal agencies noting the FBI’s claim that “a source from the camp reported people were making IED’s from small Coleman type propane canisters.” Van Horn added that Wilansky “was witnessed throwing an IED while on the bridge, it detonated early…
“How can we get this story out?” replied Maj. Amber Balken, a public information officer for the National Guard, which was also involved in policing the protests. “This is a must report,” Balken added, suggesting the name of a local conservative blogger.
Comment: It’s important to remember that there were many injuries that night at Backwater Bridge, as law enforcement used water cannons in freezing temperatures, rubber bullets, and tear gas against water protectors. The Standing Rock Medic & Healer Council reported 300 injuries, with 26 serious enough to require hospital treatment. One Native woman was struck in the face with a rubber bullet, suffering a significant eye injury.
Because Wilandsky is white and her injuries severe, it sent the law enforcement PR machine into high gear. The email chain concerning Wilansky’s injury is interesting for what is says about the number of people involved. It included the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the National Guard, and a public information officer with the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services who offered to contact the blogger.
At a minimum, it seems that law enforcement rushed to a conclusion that would free them from liability. They gave no weight to water protectors’ eye witness accounts. (If you view water protectors as terrorists, you won’t believe what they say.) Hopefully, the truth will yet come out in court.
Third, the leaked documents raise the curtain on the “Surveillance-Industrial Complex” and its role in suppressing domestic dissent.
The Intercept story discusses TigerSwan’s surveillance techniques:
In the reports, TigerSwan declares success in accessing hard-to-find Facebook content, noting in an October 10 document, “The social media cell has harnessed a URL coding technique to discover hidden profiles and groups associated with the protesters.”
TigerSwan’s intelligence got shared with law enforcement, which in turn pooled it with even more intelligence from other government agencies. The significance here is that Energy Transfer Partner’s private security firm is working side-by-side with law enforcement. That gives the corporation a direct line to law enforcement to shape the narrative around the conflict. That isn’t impartial.
The Intercept story raises a bigger question, that of the role of “fusion centers” in dealing with protests. In response to 9/11. President George W. Bush signed a law creating “fusion centers … originally intended to facilitate sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among different state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies,” the story said. (Here is an FAQ on fusion centers, by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.)
The Intercept interviewed Brendan McQuade, an assistant professor at the State University of New York, Cortland, who is working on a book on fusion centers. He reviewed The Intercept’s leaked documents and said they gave “unique insight … into how fusion centers are used for political repression.”
“We’ve seen hints of this monitoring of the online presence of Black Lives Matter and Occupy protests, but never such explicit evidence of it as in the documents you’ve collected,” he told The Intercept.
The story continued:
According to former FBI Special Agent Michael German, who is now with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, fusion centers have become part of a broader “surveillance-industrial complex” in which security agencies and the corporate sector merge together in a frenzy of mass information gathering, tracking, and surveillance.
Comment: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security website lists Fusion Center Success Stories. The success stories include breaking up a sex trafficking ring (2015), arresting a murder suspect (2014) and breaking up a synthetic drug ring (2014). The site does not list any success story of monitoring and intervening in a domestic protest similar to DAPL. Fusion centers were not created to address situations such as DAPL. This is dangerous mission creep.
Government and law enforcement should not have taken such a one-sided approach to the DAPL conflict. Did law enforcement think to give Standing Rock the kind of ear, access and attention that TigerSwan — Energy Transfer Partners’ proxy — got? No. Further, by bringing so much military equipment, anti-terrorism training, and surveillance to bear on the situation, the government became blind to the range of solutions available. Did anyone in law enforcement ever stop to ask if there was a better approach to resolving the conflict than treating the water protectors as terrorists?
The answer is obvious.