Sinister Private Counter-Terrorism Firm Hired to Track and Infiltrate Dakota Pipeline Protesters, Including Chicago Groups

Posted on May 31, 2017

UPDATE (6/22/17): In a subsequent installment of their reporting on surveillance targeting Dakota Access Pipeline protests, The Intercept has revealed that both shorty before and after demonstrators were dispersed from their encampment, TigerSwan continued tracking the whereabouts and activities of prominent activists after they returned home from the anti-DAPL demonstration. According to situation reports (SITREPs) dated February 19 and 22 of this year, TigerSwan deployed undercover agents to infiltrate, among others around the country, the inner circles of Chicago-area activist movements whose respective memberships included individuals involved in the anti-DAPL protests. 

According to documents provided to The Intercept, these extended monitoring efforts aimed at tracking anti-DAPL participants after the conclusion of the protest stem from TigerSwan’s application of a counterterrorism strategy that likens the dissolution of the anti-DAPL activities to the dispersal of terrorist organizations. In these documents, they justify their continued surveillance operation on behalf of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, by concluding that protesters involved in the anti-DAPL protest will go on to form future radical movements which may threaten the interests of their client in the same way that the scattering of the Afghan Taliban resistance to Soviet occupation in the 1980s eventually spawned Al Qaeda and other “jihadist” movements. 

It is obviously concerning enough that peaceful First Amendment-protected speech is subject to aggressive and invasive surveillance by a mercenary counterterrorism corporation, but it is even more alarming that participants of even one demonstration which is monitored in this way can be subsequently targeted for continued monitoring after their participation has ended, and for an indefinite future period of time. It is also not clear whether or not profiles on individuals targeted for extended surveillance are made available to contemporaneous or future clients of TigerSwan should these post-demonstration activities be of interest to them. With this in mind, one can only speculate at how many potential clients of TigerSwan may be party to personal details and whereabouts collected during and after their participation in an event of interest to a previous client.  

An explosive new report from The Intercept reveals that the energy company that commissioned the Dakota Access Pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, contracted a private-sector intelligence firm to monitor activists opposed to the construction using counterterrorism techniques. The intelligence contractor, TigerSwan, not only employed intelligence-gathering methods developed for, and commonly used in, combating terrorist insurgencies, but internal documents acquired by The Intercept show that the company also characterized the organizers and protesters as “terrorists” and generally likened their First Amendment activities to forms of militancy. 

Given the background of TigerSwan and its founder, it is highly likely that Energy Transfer Partners was aware of the kind of surveillance activities which the mercenary intelligence firm would carry out. The company’s founder, James Reese, was a member of the US military’s elite Delta Force during its deployment in the Iraq War. Following his deployment, he refined the counter-insurgency techniques he learned in Iraq and formed TigerSwan to offer intelligence services utilizing these techniques to other private-sector and government customers. The documents furnished by The Intercept show exactly these methods in action while monitoring the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota over the course of last year.

While contracted by Energy Transfer Partners for this purpose, TigerSwan shared its intelligence assessments and products with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and local law enforcement, as well. Beyond simple reports, these intelligence products even extended to a live video feed, taken from aerial surveillance, made available to the aforementioned agencies and law enforcement bodies.

TigerSwan’s video surveillance was bolstered by a full complement of traditional and modern intelligence collection methods. In addition to this aerial footage collection, conducted using drones, the company also deployed open-source intelligence (OSINT) operations, such as monitoring and mining social media data, and infiltrating protest camps with agents posing as activists with fake identities. The intelligence products resulting from these efforts included, along with traditional situation reports (SITREPs), Person of Interest (POI) profiles on prominent organizing leaders, catalogs of evidence deliberately intended for enabling prosecution, and information warfare campaigns explicitly designed to “delegitimize” protest activities.

Additionally, according to a piece from Alternet which cites a prominent protest organizer of the anti-Dakota Access movement, numerous protesters reported unusual interruptions in signal reception and data loss for their cellular-enabled mobile devices, suggesting the use of cell-site simulators (more commonly known as “stingrays”) or similar cellular surveillance and interception devices. This claim is further supported by an interview with Intercept co-founder and reporter Jeremy Scahill on Democracy Now, in which Scahill echoes reports of suspicious cellular service outages among activists at the site of the protest. A stingray is a surveillance device which works by posing as a cell tower, forcing nearby cellular devices to connect with it, and then blocking or intercepting messages or data sent to or from the connected devices. As more advanced stingray models are capable of injecting or altering data in transit between cellular devices and their intended destination, it is entirely possible that TigerSwan, or any of the law enforcement entities operating in the area as well, could use one or more stingrays to the block cellular access of demonstrators’ mobile devices, or tamper with the data on them. 

Most alarming among the details revealed in the published documents is the routine characterization of peaceful demonstrators by means of War on Terror terminology. Throughout the SITREPs and other documents supplied to Energy Transfer Partners and local and federal law enforcement protesters are referred to as “terrorists,” their peaceful protest actions are framed as “attacks,” and the various protest and camp sites they occupied are described as “battlefields.” Particularly unsettling is the mantra which TigerSwan uses to capture their mission ideology, “Find. Fix. Eliminate.,” as it bears striking resemblance to that which is used by the US military’s drone strike program operating in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia: “Find. Fix. Finish.”

The reach of TigerSwan’s surveillance work on behalf of Energy Transfer Partners also extended beyond North Dakota to, among other areas, satellite protest efforts in Chicago and Springfield, Illinois. In a SITREP dated November 5, 2016, TigerSwan provided an intelligence assessment on a Chicago protest coordinated by student groups at four area universities to meet at the Army Corps of Engineers office in Chicago. The report went on to outline “radicalized anti-DAPL sentiment,” and noted that its collection methods responsible for gathering intelligence on Chicago activist efforts included monitoring a Facebook event page for the protest and “effective methods for camera placement and image collection database [sic].”

Taken together, these details on the response to one of the most significant environmental activism efforts in recent memory paints a disturbing picture of pervasive and aggressive surveillance on peaceful demonstrators, made possible by intimate public-private cooperation. The practice of regarding citizens exercising their First Amendment-protected speech as terrorists engaging in militant extremism portends an obviously profound chilling effect on the exercise of free speech in the US. And for those who are not deterred from engaging in peaceful protest, the fact that their organizing activities are so closely monitored and deliberately undermined presents a daunting challenge to activists seeking to organize effective demonstrations or movements. These emerging trends, in conjunction with a precipitous increase in state legislation (some of it since enacted) cracking down on certain forms of protest, point to the very real and dangerous possibility that core, indispensable forms of free speech will become essentially criminalized. 

You can read the full story from The Intercept, including source documents for their reporting, here

Jonathan Terrasi has been a Research Assistant with the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights since January 2017. His interests include computer security, encryption, history, and philosophy. In his writing, he regularly covers topics on current affairs and political developments, as well as technical analyses and guides on security issues, published on his blog, Cymatic Scanning, and Linux Insider.