Could The NSA Spy On Environmental Activists?

Andrea Peterson Jul 8, 2013

The surveillance programs revealed in the National Security Agency (NSA) leaks last month appear to be primarily focused on terrorism. Details of domestic communications were gathered to create a database for that purpose. But with the government increasingly classifying peaceful protest movements as potential terrorist threats, does that mean environmental activists could be spied on?

Nafeez Ahmed at The Guardian pointed out that internal reports and documents about U.S. military preparedness for emergency situations have started including planning for domestic unrest related to climate change disasters. Also, since the economic crash in 2008, the U.S. security apparatus has placed a significant amount of scrutiny on political activists — often in conjunction with corporate interests.

Heavily redacted documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local law enforcement often categorized the Occupy movement as a prospective terrorist threat, and collaborated with banking sector to monitor the groups. And just as the banking sector had a vested interest in categorizing the Occupy movement as possible terrorists, so do oil and gas companies have a vested interest in discrediting peaceful protest movements opposing fossil fuel projects. In both cases, the success of those political activists would negatively impact business interests.

Documents released by Bold Nebraska, a group opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, suggest that corporate interests are working with local law enforcement and the FBI to push for the application of “anti-terrorism laws” against activists. The group obtained a series of presentations given by subsidiaries of TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, to local law enforcement through a FOIA request. The presentations included suggested criminal charges to be laid against protesters engaging in civil disobedience and specifically highlighted the option of contacting District Attorneys about pursuing terrorist-related charges for obstructing or sabotaging critical infrastructure.

Sadly, the classification of climate activists as terrorists is not a new phenomenon — nor is the surveillance of them as such. Three activists with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network were watched for thirteen months starting in March 2005 after being placed in a Maryland State Police data base as being “suspected of involvement in terrorism” although the police had “no evidence whatsoever of any involvement in violent crime.” The state eventually realized their error and offered the activists a chance to review the information collected about them, but the fact remains that their non-violent activism made them a target for government surveillance.

To be clear, there’s no evidence at this point to show that the NSA is using its broad anti-terrorism surveillance powers to pursue climate activists. But given the lack of details about government snooping programs and the pattern of corporate interest in classifying non-violent political activists as terrorist threats, the speculation that the government might be keeping an uncomfortably close eye on peaceful environmental activists doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility.

First published at Think Progress.

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