The report details how corporations use their security teams, private contractors, and ex-federal agents to infiltrate nonprofit advocacy groups.
Nonprofit organizations are the new targets for corporations willing to hire spies to undermine their goals and dismantle missions they perceive as a threat to their dominance and wealth.
The Essential Information report, “Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations,” details corporate use of former CIA and FBI agents, whose tactics have included infiltration into prominent nonprofit organizations.
The report’s author, Gary Ruskin, says that corporations are using their security teams to deal with outside threats, which now include nonprofit advocacy groups that actively draw attention to specific corporate activities. In a sense, the nonprofit advocates are the new corporate threat.
“Many different types of nonprofits have been targeted with espionage, including environmental, anti-war, public interest, consumer, food safety, pesticide reform, nursing-home reform, gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms control groups,” the report said.
Other voices, same call
Ruskin isn’t the only one to dive into the world of corporate espionage research. Dr. Eveline Lubbers of the University of Bath in the UK published a report for the Institute of Policy Research detailing the tactics used by companies like McDonalds and Nestle and they’ve sought to reach into the world of their opposition.
“A corporation does not spy on its critics just to know what is going on, it does so to be prepared and to defend itself. The connection between surveillance and the gathering of intelligence on the one hand, and subsequent corporate strategy on the other, is crucial to understand what is happening and why,” the summary states.
Yet just as nonprofit and advocacy groups are calling out corporations for their espionage, some nonprofits are using a page out of the same playbook. Animal-rights organizations, for example, use infiltration and secret video to expose animal abuse in factory farming scenarios — a right lawmakers and corporate backers have attempted to limit.
The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Bill, a piece of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) legislation, deemed it illegal for animal rights or environmental advocates to apply for a position under false pretenses, and in extreme cases, labeled them terrorists for doing so. Similar legislation has already been passed in a handful of states, including Missouri, Iowa and Montana.
For activists, however, there’s no such legislation — and that’s what Ruskin and Essential Information are calling for.
While similar cases of corporate espionage have been highlighted by activists and nonprofit organizations, the report is calling on congressional leadership. Specifically, the author of the report says lawmakers must pass legislation that will hold corporations accountable for stealing information from their nonprofit enemies.
“Corporate espionage against nonprofit organizations is an egregious abuse of corporate power that is subverting democracy,” said Gary Ruskin, the report’s author. “Who will rein in the forces of corporate lawlessness as they bear down upon nonprofit defenders of justice?”
Targeting the corporations
The report specifically names some of the world’s most prominent corporations, including Monsanto, Wal-Mart, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Coca-Cola, Chevron, Shell, BP, McDonalds and Burger King, among others — all of which the report alleges have used espionage to spy on nonprofit and activist threats.
The report gives a number of examples dating back to the 1980s — each one shows the deliberate attempt by corporations, either solo or banded together, to infiltrate nonprofit organizations.
In 2001, Shell and BP worked together with the Hakluyt private investigative firm to spy on Greenpeace. On behalf of the oil companies, Hakluyt hired Manfred Schlickenrieder to pose as an environmental activist and filmmaker and work his way into the organization. His mission was to determine the actions of Greenpeace, specifically as it related to its campaigns against the oil companies.
In 2012, Wikileaks released a cache of Stratfor documents and emails that revealed a widespread activist spying campaign on the behalf of corporations. The documents revealed that in 2009, Coca-Cola hired Stratfor to investigate People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and their protests related to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Emails not only revealed that Stratfor complied, but also that it was working with the FBI to monitor the organization’s activity.
Those documents also exposed espionage amid the 1984 Bhopal, India chemical plant explosion, still considered one of the world’s largest industrial disasters. It killed more than 2,000 people and caused illness among tens of thousands. Yet those are only the official numbers — activists claim the death toll related to the disaster has grown to around 15,000 — those who did survive did not receive compensation.
At the time of the explosion, the plant was owned by Union Carbide, which was purchased by Dow Chemical in 2001. The Wikileaks Stratfor exposure revealed that Dow Chemical had hired the firm to investigate those activists demanding justice for the Bhopal disaster.
Citing a story published in The Nation, the report indicates Blackwater went to great lengths to become the investigative firm for Monsanto, the world’s leading GMO seed producer. The report indicates Blackwater’s Total Intelligence and Terrorism Research Center also did business with other global corporation, providing intelligence communications on activist groups. The report reveals that Monsanto did hire Blackwater in 2008 to do just that.
In 2010, investigative firm Kroll was contacted by Chevron to a hire a corporate spy to undermine the company’s $9 billion fine it was issued after it lost a lawsuit claiming the company spilled more than 330 million gallons of oil into the rainforests of Ecuador, causing widespread contamination, destruction of the land and health impacts among the area’s indigenous.
Journalist Mary Cuddehe said she was contacted by Kroll to pose as an American journalist — her job would have been to trump the side of the indigenous through her journalistic work. She turned down the $20,000 assignment.
“With one Google search, anyone could see that I was, in fact, a journalist,’ she wrote in a piece published in the Atlantic. “ If I went to Lago Agrio as myself and pretended to write a story, no one would suspect that the starry-eyed young American poking around was actually shilling for Chevron.”
Where’s the line for justice?
Lobbying lawmakers to take on a cause that directly goes against the line of corporate interest isn’t an easy task. But there are examples of cases in which the “little guy” has won out, causing corporations to pay fines for illegal activity.
They’re just not in the U.S.
As the report points out, a French utility company was ordered to pay more than $2 million after it was found guilty of hacking Greenpeace computers in an attempt to unravel the organization’s information.
Despite victories like that, Ruskin claims there’s still room for discussion in the U.S., if not only to highlight the problem, but also to enforce its punishment.
“Corporate espionage against nonprofit organizations is an egregious abuse of corporate power that is subverting democracy,” Ruskin told the LA Times. “Who will rein in the forces of corporate lawlessness as they bear down upon nonprofit defenders of justice?”