A private security firm spied on Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and several other environmental organizations from the late 1990s until at least the year 2000, according a new investigation by Mother Jones magazine. The security firm was run by former Secret Service officers who infiltrated environmental groups, collected their phone records and confidential internal documents, and even went through their trash. The information was then passed on to public relations firms and corporations involved in environmental controversies. We speak with the reporter who broke the story, James Ridgeway. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: A private security firm spied on Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and several other environmental organizations from the late 1990s until at least 2000. That’s according to a comprehensive new investigation by Mother Jones magazine. The security firm was run by former Secret Service officers. The operatives infiltrated environmental groups, collected their phone records and confidential internal documents, and even went through their trash. The information was then passed on to public relations firms and corporations involved in environmental controversies.
The security firm was called Beckett Brown International, later changed its name to S2i. It dissolved in 2001, but its officials went on to other security firms that remain active today. Among its clients in the late ’90s was public relations company Ketchum, that worked for Dow Chemical and Kraft Foods, that owns Taco Bell. Another client included PR outfit Nichols-Dezenhall, which was working with Condea Vista, the chemical manufacturing firm that in 1994 leaked up to forty-seven million pounds of ethylene dichloride, a suspected carcinogen, into the Calcasieu River in Louisiana.
James Ridgeway is the senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones magazine. He is the primary author of the report, which is available at motherjones.com. It’s called “Cops and Former Secret Service Agents Ran Black Ops on Green Groups.” James Ridgeway joins us now from our firehouse studios in New York. Welcome, Jim, from Seattle, Washington.
JAMES RIDGEWAY: Hi. How are you, Amy?
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, why don’t you let us know how you were tipped off to this story?
JAMES RIDGEWAY: Well, actually, I got a call from a group in Minneapolis, and they suggested — they said that they had been trying to get people interested in this subject, and nobody really, I guess, had gone for it. So they put me in touch with a guy on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a person named John Dodd, who had turned out to be the primary investor of S2i, or BBI. And at first he didn’t want to talk to me. And, you know, I persisted, and eventually he agreed and his lawyer agreed, and I went down there and began to go through boxes. He had like sixty boxes in a storage vault. And I went through these boxes. These were boxes of records. And I began to find this different stuff. And that’s — the report is based on the documents, essentially.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about exactly what you found.
JAMES RIDGEWAY: Well, first of all, you have to realize — I have to tell you how this all happened, which is that Dodd had put like over — I think it was around $700,000 into this company. He had been approached at a bar by a guy from Easton, whom he got to know and who, in turn, huge introduced him to various Secret Service officers, most of them retired. And these Secret Service officers, you know, encouraged him to do it, said it would be a great company, that they would protect the inaugural, Clinton’s inaugural — second inaugural, I guess it was, and a variety of other things. So, anyhow, he puts the money in, and they then told them it was really profitable, really going great guns. He put some more money in, and on and on.
He kept asking for an outside accounting, and they refused, according to him. So, eventually he managed to get his own accountant to look at it, and his own accountant came back and told him that the books had been basically cooked and that there was fraud involved.
At that point, he heard from a friend who was working in the company that they were shredding papers. So he got his own friends, and they got in a truck, and they drove up to the company on Saturday morning. And they went in, and they took all the records they could find and took them out, and they hid them. I don’t know where they hid them first, but they ended up putting them in this storage vault. So when I went there, there were these like cardboard boxes stuffed with records. They weren’t in any particular, you know, order or anything. So I just started going through them.
One of the most interesting things that I saw was one involving David Fenton. David Fenton runs a public relations operation in Washington, which is very well known, you know, amongst liberals and environmentalists. And this file had a — it had a background investigation of Fenton, his wife. It had the numbers and the types of cars that they own, license plate numbers. It had the tax assessments of his property. It had documents — building documents from his office, which, I mean, clearly had been taken from his office, unless somebody had thrown them in the trash, which seems pretty doubtful, because they were very confidential.
And then, most interesting of all, there were photographs. There were photographs of the front of his house, his house taken from the side, both sides, and the street in front, which showed the level of traffic. And behind the photographs, there was a MapQuest printout that showed how you would get to his house from the BBI headquarters, which was then in Severna Park, Maryland. So it looked as if these guys were going to visit him. And I thought that was really interesting.
And then, finally, I found on a scribbled piece of paper what amounted to a surveillance report on his office, which stated that, you know, the last car out of the garage was, I don’t know, 2:00 in the morning and the trash came at a certain time. And so, I took that information, and I called David Fenton, and I got in touch with one of his chief employees, and they described to me thefts at his office, which included two laptops and boxes of files around the same period of time that, you know, the surveillance had taken place and that the other stuff had been gathered. So it seemed to me that these people were doing more than just trash — going through the trash. They — someone had, you know, pretty much clearly, to my mind, penetrated his office and probably was going to penetrate his house.
AMY GOODMAN: Jim Ridgeway, we’re going to break. We’re going to come back to this conversation, also find out what Wal-Mart’s part in this story is all about, as we look at your piece on black ops on green groups. We’re going to also look at tomato pickers — were they spied on? And finally, in our continued series, “1968: Forty Years Later,” we’re going to look at this fortieth anniversary of the Black Panther Party here in Seattle, Washington. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue with our guest Jim Ridgeway. He writes for Mother Jones magazine, right now has done a piece called “[Cops and Former Secret Service Agents Ran] Black Ops on Green Groups.”
Jim, can you talk about the Gallo company, Carlyle Group, the National Rifle Association and Wal-Mart, and what you found?
JAMES RIDGEWAY: Well, these were companies which were mentioned in different kinds of documents in the storeroom, if you will, in the storage vault. And some of the information — some of the, you know, notations and references were just one line; some of them were more. But basically, they were all looking for kinds of inside information, and it wasn’t clear exactly, you know, what kinds of information they got, you know? And as John Dodd told me, that he himself had been told that everything that was really hot had been shredded and that no one’s ever going to know what went on there, nor would anybody know the kinds of tactics and so forth that were used.
But we did find in one case involving Louisiana a much more sort of like deliberate operation, in which BBI had essentially hired what’s called a cutout — that is, like a consultant — in Pennsylvania, I think. And this consultant or cutout had then gone to work and hired an undercover in Louisiana, which had penetrated activist groups. A similar situation was on the West Coast, in terms of a garbage dump. But the one in Louisiana, the undercover sent reports in, which were included in the files. And the reports, you know, would describe the details of these community meetings and who was for whom and who was against what. And it described how the undercover was thought to be such a hot person, so good that he or she was promoted into an executive committee function, from which she reported, or he reported. I wouldn’t say whether it was a male or female.
So this use of the undercover made me think that this was probably one of numerous undercovers that were employed. And essentially, you know, you’ve got to remember that what’s going on here is that you have the major corporation that’s doing something, you know, like in the case of Kraft making the GE corn tacos, and then they hire a PR firm, and the PR firm hires BBI or something like that, and then BBI hires what you call subcontractors or cutouts. Subcontractors go along and look at trash.
In the case of BBI in Washington and Greenpeace, one of the subcontractors was an active-duty D.C. policeman. In other areas in D.C. were people who were former Maryland — Baltimore and Maryland state police were involved. And they referred to in these various documents — they would say, “Maybe we can get some help from our friends in the Baltimore police force.” Or in another case, they said, “If the shield,” which means the badge, the police badge, “doesn’t get us in the door, then we’ll have to, you know, think of something else.” But so, the suggestion here was that they were using active-duty, you know, functioning police officers, kind of double dipping on the job, so to speak.
AMY GOODMAN: And what has been — I mean, the company has been disbanded, but were you able to reach those who have gone into other security firms who were involved here?
JAMES RIDGEWAY: Yes, I was able to reach the major figure, Tim Ward, who’s a former Maryland state policeman. And he said he didn’t want to talk about it. In fact, all the people I talked to said they didn’t want to talk about it, and — with the exception of one woman, who had been dating Tim Ward at the time and who described in some detail going on what amounted to a black ops. She was told to dress in black, and she went — and she said Ward was dressed in black, and they went down to the Greenpeace building in Washington, parked in an alley. She was told to stay in the truck. Ward got out, met with a couple of other guys. They talked on walkie-talkies, were gone for a while and came back with some trash. And then they returned home. It was sort of a comic event, I guess.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Jim, what has been Greenpeace’s response, and other groups, like Lois Gibbs’s group?
JAMES RIDGEWAY: Well, the Lois Gibbs group didn’t know anything was going on. And in fact, I was just able to figure that out on the basis of checking addresses against work logs, the company work logs, which described how much trash had been collected — or at least I thought it was trash. It said something like “one box, two bags,” or, I don’t know, “two bags” —- “two boxes, one bag” at this address out in Virginia. And so, I checked the address, and it was Lois Gibbs’s home.
The Greenpeace people, at first -—
AMY GOODMAN: And let’s just say — Jim, let’s just say Lois Gibbs, of course, is known for exposing toxic —-
JAMES RIDGEWAY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- dangers at Love Canal. Her group, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
JAMES RIDGEWAY: Absolutely. She would be something that any corporation, any, you know, on-the-ball corporation would want to know where she was and what she was doing, put it like that.
The Greenpeace people were very concerned, because, among other things, I found, you know, lists of all their employees with their Social Security numbers. I found some credit card numbers. I found lists of donors. I found descriptions of efforts to persuade various donors to give large amounts of money. I found individual — at least one individual employee’s personal bank account records, which was an original document, was not a Xerox or anything. I found Xeroxes of checks made out from, you know, community groups and so on to Greenpeace. For example, there was one, somebody I think in Alaska, that had sent a check for $25. I found a Xerox of that. And on and on and on. So, basically, what’s going on here is that the Social Security numbers and I think in some cases credit card numbers and other personal details, which would permit identity theft, were violated, you know? They were essentially on the street. So I think Greenpeace was quite concerned about that. And I imagine the other groups would be concerned about it, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Will there be any lawsuits here?
JAMES RIDGEWAY: I don’t know. I think that some of these groups were sort of dimly aware or maybe directly aware of this for some time and never did anything. Some people just want to forget it and don’t think it was going on. But it seems to me if it was going on for several years in the late ’90s and into 2000, it’s doubtful that it’s stopped. I mean, it’s probably going on now. I don’t know whether the same people are involved in this kind of stuff, but I wouldn’t hesitate to think the same tactics and so on are used.
Remember, this is the kind of thing that happened to Ralph Nader many, many years ago. And at that time, Bobby Kennedy was the one who brought it to the attention of Congress and to the public. I mean, is there anybody like that now in Congress? I don’t know. I mean, would Barbara Boxer do something of this sort? I mean, would Henry Waxman? I just don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: Jim Ridgeway, what were you most surprised by in researching the story?
JAMES RIDGEWAY: Well, I was surprised that these professional policemen — in fact, in one email, they discussed with one another how — what good cops they were. Some guy said, “Well, you know, we’re really good cops,” and then he proceeded to give the codeword, the codename for their, you know, private email address. So I was sort of surprised they put all this stuff on paper. I mean, and this wasn’t like some — you know, there were some reports that were rehashed on the basis of, you know, document — of reports, field reports, but there were some things that were just straight, you know, emails that were sent back and forth, which contained various revealing information. So I thought that was kind of surprising.
AMY GOODMAN: I was also interested in the whole client briefing document of Beckett Brown International. Can you describe that? Describe their seeking of documents, following money trails, ID activists, the chain of command.
JAMES RIDGEWAY: Well, right. They were particularly interested — first of all, there were voluminous documents of this sort, these kind of like reports, and they appear to have been circulated not just to the Beckett Brown clients, but to other PR companies. I mean, there were several different PR companies who appeared to be — they all appeared to be operating as kind of a network, and they get these things. And I spoke to a woman who actually prepared some of these documents, and of course she denied — or not “of course,” but she denied, you know, doing any trash hunting or going into any offices and referred to this as “competitive research,” which she said everybody did. “Everybody does competitive research.”
But in some of these documents which I took to, for example, Greenpeace and showed Rick Hind, who is one of the people who’s foremost in this country on chlorine, for example, in fighting the use of chlorine — I showed him a document that discussed upcoming events that he would participate in and people of Greenpeace would participate in, and he said it was inconceivable that anybody would know about this, unless they had directly penetrated Greenpeace’s meetings.
There was another situation — another document I saw which described the forming of a group called GE Alert. It listed, I don’t know, maybe thirty names of people who were to meet or who had met to form this group. And then it described a meeting, or perhaps it was a series of meetings, but it was a meeting which was a confidential meeting of the principals in this group, of what they were going to do, their strategies, and how they were going to function. In one of the emails that I saw from BBI, one BBI guy to another, there was a description of how — they said, “Ketchum has the ball” and that Kraft was the company who was making these tacos, these GE — what they referred to as “glow-in-the-dark tacos,” and they implied or suggested strongly that there was going to be an announcement or a press conference coming up, and it was going to look bad, you know, for Kraft, and they wanted to get — find out what was going on and who was doing what to whom. So the suggestion here was that they penetrated GE Alert.
Then there was a subsequent email which described an effort to penetrate the building where this press conference took place, and they — it told about how you get into the protected trash area, how the garbage people would take it out, you know, how a person could get into it. And then it described how they didn’t find anything from the fifth floor. Well, the fifth floor was the offices of an organization which held the press conference and which represented GE Alert in Washington. So, I mean, it’s pretty detailed stuff.
And, you know, having been in Washington a long time, I would say, unfortunately, it’s not unusual. I’m sure this goes on all the time.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jim Ridgeway, I want to thank you for being with us, Washington-based correspondent for Mother Jones magazine. The piece at motherjones.com called “Cops and Former Secret Service Agents Ran Black Ops on Green Groups.” As you talk about tacos and talk about private investigations, we’re going to turn now to Florida groups organizing for tomato pickers, saying they might have been spied on and vilified online by the fast-food conglomerate Burger King.