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Pt 2: U.S. Corporations Enlist Ex-Intelligence Agents to Spy on Nonprofit Groups

Web ExclusiveNovember 25, 2013
Media Options

In this web-only interview, we continue the discussion with Gary Ruskin, director of the Center for Corporate Policy, about the new report, "Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations." Click here to watch part 1 of this segment.

The report details the diverse groups of nonprofits have been targeted with espionage, including environmental, antiwar, public interest, consumer safety, pesticide reform, gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms control groups. The corporations carrying out the spying include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Wal-Mart, Monsanto, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Chevron, Burger King, McDonald’s, Shell, BP and others. According to the report, these corporations employ former CIA, National Security Agency and FBI agents to engage in private surveillance work, which is often illegal in nature, but rarely, if ever, prosecuted.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re speaking to Gary Ruskin, director of the Center for Corporate Policy, a project of Essential Information. He’s just put out a report called "Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations," speaking to us from the University of California, Berkeley.

This is part two of our conversation, Gary, and I was wondering if you could just sort of give us this laundry list of corporations spying on nonprofits. Give us a name of the corporation, the nonprofit they targeted, and what they did.

GARY RUSKIN: Sure. Well, there’s been a lot of espionage related to food issues. So let’s start with food for a little bit. So, let’s start with Kraft. Kraft was implicated in a scandal where there was genetically engineered corn that was not approved, that made it into a Taco Bell-related product. And so, Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety pointed this out. And Kraft got very alarmed about the whole thing, and so they sent—apparently, they contracted with a really very intrusive private investigative firm called BBI—the same one that did the espionage against Greenpeace—to do physical intrusion and to do dumpster diving, including dumpster diving where they would actually have an active-duty police officer to get into the—you know, to the private areas of—to the private property of these nonprofits and obtain their memos in their garbage so that they could figure out what it is that these GMO—anti-GMO activists were working on. So, that’s Kraft.

Let’s see, Burger King did—contracted with an investigator that was quite worried about a really heroic civic organization down in Florida called the Coalition for Immokalee Workers. And so, they hired—contracted with this investigative firm, which then started calling up Coalition of Immokalee Workers posing as a student asking all sorts of questions. And so, it took a while for CIW to figure out what was going on. But they figured it out, that this was in fact a private investigator trying to spy.

So, another example would be Monsanto in the food-related zone. So, Monsanto and this famous company called Blackwater, and then called Xe and then called Academi—


GARY RUSKIN: Yeah, go on.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead in talking about Blackwater, that’s now, as you said, Academi.

GARY RUSKIN: So, yeah, so then they were—at that time, they were called Blackwater. And so, Blackwater wanted to be essentially the espionage arm of Monsanto. So they did some work together. We have fragmentary information about their work together.

So, then, there’s been a lot of activity in the oil and the chemical—from oil and chemical companies. So, Dow Chemical did extensive espionage against Greenpeace. Shell has done some espionage, as well. So has BP. And Chevron is sort of an interesting case. They have been hit with a $9.5 billion fine related to their pollution, that Texaco, which they purchased, conducted, you know, spilled in Ecuador. And so, Chevron tried to—through a private investigative firm, giant private investigative firm called Kroll, tried to hire a journalist, whose name was Mary Cuddehe, to essentially act as a corporate spy for Chevron to try to discredit a public health study about the effects of the oil spill. So they tried to hire her. She said no ,and then she just wrote this totally wonderful, charming piece about Kroll’s efforts in The Atlantic a few years ago. So those are—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Mary Cuddehe on Democracy Now! describing their approach to her.

MARY CUDDEHE: I was in Cancún. I’m a freelance reporter, and I was in Cancún working on another story. And, you know, it was kind of the typical thing where I was writing for a magazine that has a low budget, and, you know, I seemed like I was barely going to break even on the story, and I was sort of despairing about the state of journalism. And then I got this phone call. You know, it was kind of like magic. And I found out about this job. And so, I went back to Mexico City, and I got in touch with someone from Kroll. And they didn’t want to speak too much over the phone, so they offered to fly me out to Bogotá for the weekend. ...

I was told about this health study that Chevron suspected had been done, that there was fraud in this health study, and they wanted me to go down to Lago Agrio and kind of investigate who had done the interviews and whether there had been collusion between the Spanish human rights activists who had conducted the health study and the plaintiffs in that study.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were to say you were who?

MARY CUDDEHE: I was to say that I was myself. And that was ultimately the reason that I couldn’t do it. You know, I didn’t think that I was being asked to do anything illegal at any point. I just felt that if I went down to Lago Agrio and was, you know, investigating, doing an investigation for Chevron, and, you know, acting as a journalist, I felt that I was walking into territory, as a journalist, I wouldn’t be able to come back from. And that was ultimately why I had to say no.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mary Cuddehe, a freelance journalist who was being recruited by Chevron to work for them without revealing her actual identity, that she would be working for them. You also talk about London and McDonald’s, London Greenpeace and McDonald’s. What happened there?

GARY RUSKIN: Well, this a very old story. So, approximately 20 years ago, there were some activists who were handing out leaflets about McDonald’s and their activities, and McDonald’s actually sued them in—for libel. And this was called then the famous McLibel trial. And so, for a long time, this trial went on and on, but as part of the trial, out came a revelation that McDonald’s had investigators spying on the people on trial and on some of the other London Greenpeace activists at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, today in our headlines, we talked about House legislation that’s been passed; it does not look like it will make it through the Senate, and President Obama has promised to veto it. But I wanted to see how this fits in with this picture. Among the legislation that’s been passed would be a provision that would impose a $5,000 fee on anyone filing an official protest against an oil-drilling project.

GARY RUSKIN: Well, I’m not familiar with that legislation. But, you know, one of the problems that we have with corporate espionage here in the United States is there’s—you know, there’s no investigation of it here, and there’s no—you know, there’s no real investigation, there’s no prosecutions. You know, in the United Kingdom, for example, there has been a giant phone-hacking scandal with respect to Rupert Murdoch and News of the World, the now-defunct News of the World newspaper. And there, there was a—there, you know, The Guardian of London did this very big investigative series on it, and then the British government has been doing an investigation, and now there are prosecutions happening right now in this case. So, there, there’s been a real serious government response. When there was corporate espionage found in France from Électricité de France, there was a very serious investigation. There were prosecutions, fines. People went to jail. But here in the United States, Congress is totally asleep. There is no—there is no investigation of this matter at all, as far as we can tell, either from Congress or from the Department of Justice. And that’s really awful. You know, we—corporate espionage against nonprofit organizations is a threat to democracy, and it’s a threat to individual privacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Gary Ruskin—

GARY RUSKIN: It’s a threat to democracy—

AMY GOODMAN: A few years ago, we had a chance—


AMY GOODMAN: —to interview Eamon Javers, author of the book Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage, and I asked him about the CIA’s little-known policy allowing their active-duty operatives to moonlight in the private sector.

EAMON JAVERS The CIA was relatively forthcoming with me when I called them to ask them about this. They said, "Yes, this is our policy." They said that in order to moonlight and work in the private sector, a CIA officer has to have approval from their boss. They have to go through a vetting process to make sure there’s no conflict of interest, there’s no danger to national security here.

But they wouldn’t tell me all the key details about the program. They wouldn’t tell me how many people are participating in it. And they wouldn’t tell me which companies they’re working at. So I’ve gotten some pushback from some CIA veterans who said, "Well, this is just a policy for 24-year-old CIA guys to go work at Home Depot on the weekend and pick up a little extra spending cash." But we don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Eamon Javers, author of Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage. Gary Ruskin, can you elaborate on that, and what the policies are? Talk about the CIA and also the FBI.

GARY RUSKIN: Well, so, Eamon Javers has really tried to heroically pull this stuff out into the light, but it’s been very hard for him. And really, what he knows is pretty much all we know and pretty much all that’s been reported on CIA or NSA, for that matter, moonlighting. So we really don’t know. You know, he asks all the right questions, but we really don’t have answers to them, and that’s what Congress really should be for, to figure out, you know, who is moonlighting for whom, how much are they being paid, what companies are hiring active-duty CIA or NSA or other law enforcement officials, how common is this, what kinds of espionage activities are they allowed to do, or do they consult, or do they actually execute these espionage activities. You know, Congress is asleep, and it’s really a shame, because these are vital questions for our democracy, and we deserve to know.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, the computer hacker Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in prison for hacking into the computers of the private intelligence firm Stratfor. The Stratfor hack revealed, among other things, that Dow Chemical had hired the firm to monitor and harass activists speaking out about the Bhopal disaster. It also showed Coca-Cola employed Stratfor to spy on PETA activists. Hammond’s sentence is one of the longest ever in a criminal hacking case. His attorney, Sarah Kunstler, said Hammond’s sentencing judge had overlooked his political motivations.

SARAH KUNSTLER: The words that the judge used a lot and that the government used a lot in their sentencing submission were "maximum mayhem." And the government and the judge felt that the idea of causing mayhem or causing destruction was incompatible with Jeremy’s stated political goals. And we disagree with that. You know, advocating for political change, struggling for political change involves being disruptive at times. It involves being destructive at times. These are some ways the—sometimes the only pathways to change.

AMY GOODMAN: That was attorney Sarah Kunstler, who represents Jeremy Hammond. Gary Ruskin?

GARY RUSKIN: Well, you know, what we know about corporate espionage against nonprofit organizations is very fragmentary, and so we have very little information on it really at all. And so, a little bit comes from Jeremy Hammond’s hack. And so, you know, the guy is now going to go to jail for 10 years for really what’s a form of civil disobedience, or maybe you ought to call it "commercial disobedience." And so, that’s a very large price to pay.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the laws that need to be passed in this country to protect civil society from large corporations, and also the CIA and the FBI?

GARY RUSKIN: Well, there are a lot of things that have to happen. But the place to start is to enforce the laws that we already have. And so, there are—in our report, we document a number of instances where there is apparent law breaking. So, we urge Congress to investigate this. You know, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, for example, would be a great place to start. And then we urge the Justice Department to read the report and to look into the possible violations that we see there.

But in addition, there do need to be additional protections. For example, there needs to be a criminal protection to—we need to make it illegal for a company to do dumpster diving for commercial purposes in order to protect the inner workings of civic organizations, because civic organizations, they can’t do their work if—effectively, if they are constantly being pried into and spied upon by these giant corporations, who have so much resources and are able to hire former NSA, former CIA, Secret Service, U.S. military, or even, you know, perhaps active-duty. We don’t really know. We know that sometimes there have been active-duty police officers hired.

AMY GOODMAN: Gary Ruskin, how much do corporations pay for this spying?

GARY RUSKIN: Well, again, this is a question that is very hard to answer based on the information that we have. But we do know, for example, there was a proposal made by Palantir Technologies, Berico and HBGary Federal to Hunton & Williams to do some electronic espionage and information warfare, where the price tag was $2 million a month. As far as we know, that was never actually carried out, but—so that’s—but we do have the documents of the proposal. So, that is one sense of how much money we’re talking about, but really it’s a very hard question to answer.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the FBI-corporate partnership when it comes to spying on nonprofits, as you talk about InfraGard?

GARY RUSKIN: Well, again, this is something we don’t know very much about, but there is this little-known FBI-corporate partnership called InfraGard. It—essentially, it seems like it’s like business class for law enforcement. You know, they get extra special information, which is such a foreign concept, really, to the rule of law. So, they share information with one another. But we’re really not quite sure what they share and whether or not—you know, to what extent maybe the FBI might be providing intelligence or assistance with respect to corporate espionage against nonprofit organizations. We just don’t really know.

AMY GOODMAN: And were you able to speak to any corporate heads about their spying on nonprofits?

GARY RUSKIN: No, you know, we didn’t—writing the report, it was just enough to get all of the diverse documents and—you know, from 30 different sets of corporate espionage stories, and compile them into one narrative. So that’s what we did.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Gary Ruskin, I want to thank you very much for being with us, director of the Center for Corporate Policy, a project of Essential Information. We’ll link to "Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations," as well as part one of this interview. Gary Ruskin was speaking to us from the University of California, Berkeley.

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