Private Security Firm TigerSwan Targets Pipeline Protesters in COINTELPRO-Like Operation

In Part 2 of our conversation, Antonia Juhasz dives deep into how the private military contractor TigerSwan targeted protests against the the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline. The pipeline had faced widespread resistance from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, hundreds of other indigenous nations from across the Americas, as well as their non-Native allies. Published by the news outlets Grist and Reveal, her report is headlined “Paramilitary security tracked and targeted #noDAPL activists as ‘jihadists,’ docs show.” Watch Part 1: As Oil Starts to Flow Through Dakota Access Pipeline, Resistance Faces Paramilitary Security Force


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Part 2 of our conversation with Antonia Juhasz, oil and energy journalist. Her latest piece is headlined “Paramilitary security tracked and targeted #noDAPL activists as ‘jihadists,’ docs show.” It appears in the news outlets Grist and Reveal. Antonia Juhasz is author of Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill and The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry—and What We Must Do to Stop It.

In Part 1 of our discussion, Antonia, you laid out TigerSwan, and I’m wondering if you can briefly tell us what this company is and how they ended up being hired by Energy Transfer Partners, which owns the Dakota Access pipeline, to surveil and monitor the indigenous resistance to the pipeline.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: TigerSwan was founded around 2007—that date isn’t entirely clear—by a just-retired Delta Force 25-year Army veteran, James Reese. Reese has ties with Blackwater. For example, we know that in 2008 he worked for Blackwater. There’s a State Department contract demonstrating that he had worked for Blackwater at that time. He has said that he advised Blackwater, as well. And then Blackwater financed the first training facility that TigerSwan set up in North Carolina to train military, law enforcement and some civilians in tactics that it had developed working as a private military government contractor, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, on a multitude of contracts for years with State Department, DOD, Homeland Security, in theater providing security in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then Reese also started working in 2007 in turning TigerSwan’s attention—starting, I’m sorry, more like in 2011, to domestic private security for corporations and came on to be hired by Energy Transfer Partners to oversee all security on the Dakota Access pipeline, starting last year in September, and taking over after the use of dogs by private security against water protectors. And what we know is that TigerSwan set up this sophisticated counterintelligence program, including surveillance, infiltration and manipulation, intentional manipulation, of protesters, and that those operations encompassed all four states of the Dakota Access pipeline—North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois—as well as Texas, where Energy Transfer Partners is based, but that these activities are ongoing, so also in Pennsylvania, at new—at a new pipeline camp, also in South Dakota at a new pipeline resistance camp. And also the reach of TigerSwan’s activities revealed in the daily situation reports that we were leaked, that Grist was leaked, included their monitoring, for example, a protest in Ohio that had been posted by the Unitarian Universalist Church and that involved a bunch—I interviewed the woman who’s named in the report, who also happens to be a reading tutor, and it was people walking around on the street, you know, with signs in Akron, Ohio, and that ended up in TigerSwan’s, you know, surveillance web.

Also in the documents, in addition to focusing what are really likely—what would be very illegal—are likely illegal activities if they were conducted by law enforcement, so unconstitutional activities, were they to be committed by law enforcement. We also see TigerSwan using, in its own words, surveillance and other operations on those “loosely affiliated” with the protests. So these are activists in Chicago protesting against, quote, “the election of Donald Trump.” It was a very, very broad net, ongoing net, that this paramilitary force was employed by Energy Transfer Partners to oversee in opposition—you know, to stop opposition to an oil pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what about the issue of legality? You say in your piece, “U.S. laws regarding surveillance and other counterintelligence tactics don’t appear to specifically govern TigerSwan.” Why?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: This raised a number of, you know, serious concerns with legal scholars I spoke with, as well as the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, who’s representing water protectors in the 800 people who were arrested over the course of this resistance movement. So, basically, we did have a period of time where our laws focused on private security forces working for corporations. This was the era of the Pinkertons, when we had corporations using thugs to beat up unionizing, basically. Well, that—the country’s memory went pretty far afield after that, and now we basically don’t have laws for private security. The way we think about private security companies in the United States is if you think about the mall cop, you know, like the security guy at Wal-Mart who doesn’t have a gun and, you know, is just there. That’s what our laws think about when we think about private security, which means we basically have very few. They vary dramatically by state. The enforcement is—you know, can be almost nil, and there’s no federal—almost no federal restrictions. So this is an area that you now have a private paramilitary security force, used to operating in war zones. That’s what those laws are. So that’s who’s operating here. And they’re doing things that, again, if law enforcement did them, they would be unconstitutional, against the right to freedom of association, free speech, religious affiliation.

TigerSwan very clearly focused on, you know, Palestinians, people it described as “Islamicists,” who were there, Black Lives Matter. I have a very telling story—sorry, black people, and Black Lives Matter is specifically named, and, of course, the Native American community. And there’s one very telling story, however, of a young woman who was doing what she described to me as self-defense classes for women and fem folk at the camps, very small groups of people. And by looking at the dates and the descriptions, she’s sure about a story that then got reported by TigerSwan that reported, quote, “Unidentified member of the Black Panther Party is conducting hand-to-hand combat training in the camp.” And she said to me, “I’m sure that’s me, based on what else was going on at the camp, and, you know, that I might look—I do work with communities of color in Chicago”—and she’s from Chicago, where they also—TigerSwan spent a lot of time paying attention to activities in Chicago. And she said, “I’m sure that’s me. That’s not what I was doing.” But that’s what TigerSwan reported. And again, that helped facilitate their desire—and there was a comment in a TigerSwan report that said, “Law enforcement isn’t acting hard enough. The fines aren’t high enough on arrestees, and they’re not arresting enough people.” And so, what’s possible is that these reports were an attempt to get law enforcement to act more aggressively, which, of course, it did, in dramatic fashion, with many charges of excessive force, with, again, a very militarized response, you know, in the fields of North Dakota. And, you know, it’s important to look at what, if any, role TigerSwan had in that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the footage you got of TigerSwan training video, showing soldiers how to do what’s called clearing a room, the company’s co-founder and chair, retired Lieutenant Colonel Jim Reese a veteran of the Army’s elite Delta Force, the Delta Force best known for tracking bin Laden?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: There’s a lot of footage of training that TigerSwan does at its facility—again, the facility that was financed by Blackwater in North Carolina. And this is a training facility for military, law enforcement and also civilians. And that footage is, you know, a theoretical home, probably in Iraq, and we see the soldiers zooming in and immediately killing everybody, or what would likely—what seems to be the likely outcome would be, you know, you go in, and everybody’s dead. And this is the type of training that TigerSwan performs. And this is their mindset.

And one of the things I quote in my story is actually a Harvard University study that pulled together a number of chiefs of police to look at scenarios involving private security. And one of the scenarios that they were given was: What if you’ve got a group of former Afghan military veterans, elite forces, who want to set up a hostage-saving force in your city and want you to contract them to do that? And the police chiefs resoundly said, “That would be a really bad idea, because they have an entirely different set of ideas about keeping the peace than does a domestic police force, and that the profit motivation would also be deeply problematic, if you’re looking at domestic operations.” And I think that that footage really helps crystallize the idea that these were just, you know, the wrong guys for the job.

AMY GOODMAN: In an article for the Washington Examiner and posted on TigerSwan’s own website, conservative columnist Tom Rogan advocated for the TigerSwan CEO, Jim Reese, to head the FBI. Rogan writes, quote, “Reese would also innovate. Like any big organization, the FBI is ripe for reform. Establishing a successful global company after leaving the military, Reese would bring a blend of public and private sector thinking to bear. … The bureau might do well to transfer more lower-level counter-terrorism duties away from agents and towards local police-dominated Joint Terrorism Task Forces. Regardless, Reese despises static thinking.” Your thoughts on this, Antonia?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah, renowned civil rights attorney Jeffrey Haas, who is perhaps best known for leading the legal team that exposed the COINTELPROprogram of the FBI over 13 years of litigation, is one of the lawyers who’s representing the water protectors through the National Lawyers Guild. And I interviewed him at length about TigerSwan and the leaked documents. And one of the biggest concerns that he raised was that what it appeared most disturbingly was that what TigerSwan was doing was implementing a program of counterintelligence, surveillance, infiltration, that reminded him quite extensively of the COINTELPRO program, which was of course found to be illegal, but that this is a private company doing what now the FBI and law enforcement cannot do. And the irony that now, you know, James Reese apparently now wants to be the head of the FBI, and bringing, you know, these tactics back to the FBI would be laughable if it wasn’t actually unfolding right here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Antonia, explain exactly what you understand TigerSwan did in North Dakota as it took on the anti-Dakota Access pipeline water protectors.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: We know that they conducted extensive observation and infiltration, and that activity took place potentially through online hacking. They discuss getting into private Facebook pages and to use the information gained there to essentially gain information that protesters would not like to have brought out, and that that has—is potentially illegal under cyberhacking laws. We also know that they did on-the-ground collecting of information through source reporting and informants. And I shouldn’t keep saying this in the past tense; this is ongoing activities that we know that they’re still doing at ongoing camps. We know that they at least tried to use that information and those informants to develop rifts between water protectors, particularly looking at Native versus non-Native, in their words, and violent versus nonviolent.

We know that they worked closely with law enforcement, and that’s another deep potential problem here from a legal perspective. There are regular reports within TigerSwan’s reporting of meeting with law enforcement officers across the state, but also federal agents, as well, and that this level of sharing is deeply concerning because TigerSwan also stated in the documents released that it was trying to provide information that would be used towards prosecution. And so, Jeffrey Haas, the lawyer Jeffrey Haas, had said that, you know, these are basically tactics that law enforcement would not have been able to gain access to this information. It would be unconstitutional. Yet the private security company is gaining access to the information, providing it to law enforcement, and then that could potentially use towards prosecuting water protectors, again, in these, you know, some 800 cases that were brought against water protectors against the Dakota Access pipeline.

And what would be even more problematic—and we don’t know the answer to this because there—as I said, there was this extensive relationship between TigerSwan, local, state and even federal law enforcement—was if the information flow was going the other way. So if law enforcement was asking TigerSwan to do things that law enforcement can’t do, that would be—that would certainly be illegal, and that would be particularly problematic.

The documents provide a lot of information, but they mostly sort of open the door to more questions that need to be answered from a legal perspective. And one of the attorneys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told us, you know, she thinks that subpoenas should be issued looking at least at this issue of the potential hacking of private Facebook pages, and that, you know, I think there is potentially a number of legal—legal cases that could be brought, or at least more information that needs to be gained on exactly what Energy Transfer Partners was using TigerSwan for, and potentially, like I said, what law enforcement was using TigerSwan for, and what, you know, constitutional rights were being broken.

As I said, the potential threats are, you know, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion. We had people being surveilled by TigerSwan and potentially infiltrated in Chicago, far away from the pipeline. So, the pipeline passes through Illinois. It doesn’t pass through Chicago. But TigerSwan had these intense programs of observation, of trying to link. They talk about linking Black Lives Matter participants who had been at Standing Rock or just people who are part of Black Lives Matter in Chicago to four universities in the Chicago area and making links between persons of interest in different institutions and collating and gathering all this information. And all people were doing was exercising their First Amendment right to free speech and freedom of association. So, you know, these are all deeply troubling.

I will say, it was very important. I did a lot of interviews with people named in the documents or people who were at Standing Rock or involved in these protests. And I would say, to the one, they said, “You know, we knew that this—we knew that there was surveillance happening. We certainly knew that there was a possibility of infiltration. But this does not make us—you know, this doesn’t scare us. This may make us feel creeped out, and it certainly is problematic, but we’re going to keep organizing. And we think it’s really important, as well, that the public hears that, as well. We want people to be involved in these resistance movements, and we’re not going to be cowered by TigerSwan’s activities,” because, you know, one of the pieces of information that came out in exposing COINTELPRO was that one of the key objectives of COINTELPRO was to create fear and distrust within government opposition movements or within the Black Panther Party and other groups, that would undermine those activities, and that just that that fear that some—that there’s a, you know, FBI agent or a TigerSwan agent behind every corner could stop people from wanting to participate and to trust each other and work together, and that everyone I interviewed wanted to—wanted me to know that that wasn’t going to be their response to this information coming out.

AMY GOODMAN: Antonia, tell us what Kelly Hayes was accused of doing, hand-to-hand combat training, and also Joye Braun.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: So, Kelly Hayes is a pretty amazing story. She—I had found in the documents that TigerSwan had reported in one of the documents that a unidentified member of the Black Panther Party from Chicago was conducting hand-to-hand combat operations in the Standing Rock camps, probably at Oceti Sakowin, the largest camp. And I started interviewing people in Chicago, you know, not even necessarily expecting that I was going to find this person. I was doing an interview with Kelly Hayes, and I read her the date, and I read her the description. And she said, you know, “That’s got to be me. I’m sure that’s me. But I was conducting self-defense classes for small groups of women and fem folk. And I’m sure that that’s what they were talking about,” she said, “because there was nothing else even remotely similar taking place in the camp,” and that, she said, disturbingly, you know, it’s not like those—that those small groups of women and fem folk had been advertised on social media or even advertised in the camp. She said the only way that someone would know that those trainings were happening was if they were there on the ground.

She said, then, what also makes it troubling is that—the way, of course, it was reported, and that that raises the implication that TigerSwan was intentionally trying to make activities in the camp seem more dangerous, and, as it was doing throughout, focusing in on people of color and people who followed religions that they seemed to not, you know, find settling, to focus in on the potential threat of those people. And, you know, Hayes certainly found it disturbing to have this information reported on her, but, you know, she said a very powerful quote in response, which was, “You know, I think if they’re spending all this time, all this money, all this energy on trying to figure out who we are and what we’re doing, that that’s a sign of our power and that they’re afraid of us.”

AMY GOODMAN: And Joye Braun?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: So, Joye Braun, a member of the Lakota Tribe and a representative of Indigenous Environmental Network, was credited with the very first idea of setting up a resistance camp to Dakota Access pipeline in Standing Rock and outside of the reservation. And she was one of the first in and one of the very last out. She’s also set up or is a participant in a new resistance camp that’s in South Dakota, and it is to keep going with the energy against the Dakota Access pipeline, because there’s ongoing lawsuits there against it, and to begin resistance to the Keystone XL expansion put forward by Trump.

And so, I had a long conversation with her about TigerSwan and about the surveillance. And she said, “You know, first of all, we knew that we were being surveilled, of course, and potentially infiltrated. But we had no idea it was a paramilitary contractor like TigerSwan.” And that was deeply troubling. What was even more troubling, though, is that the final report that we had access to, from April 11th, said that they are monitoring the South Dakota camp, as well, and that they have an informant within that camp. And again, what she said was, “You know, we sat around a campfire in the very beginning of the camp, you know, in the very early days back in April, a year ago, of the first camp”—

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: —”saying, you know, ‘What would happen if they started treating us like they treat people in Afghanistan or people in Iraq?'” And what she said was, “We will survive. We’ve survived before. We’ll survive again. We’ll survive TigerSwan.” And in one of her final statements to me, she said, “You know, TigerSwan said in its report that we’ll—that we are really organized. Well, they’re right. We are really organized.”

AMY GOODMAN: Antonia Juhasz, oil and energy journalist. Her latest piece, we’ll link to, at Grist and Reveal, “Paramilitary security tracked and targeted #noDAPL activists as ‘jihadists,’ docs show.” She is the author of Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill and The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry—and What We Must Do to Stop It.

To go to Part 1 of our conversation with Antonia Juhasz, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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