Internecine Matrix: 12 Corporate Espionage Tactics Used Against Leading
Mar 15, 2014 08:12 PST
12 Corporate Espionage Tactics Used Against Leading Progressive Groups,
Activists and Whistleblowers December 3, 2013 |
Posing as volunteers. Stealing documents. Dumpster diving. Planting
electronic bugs. Hacking computers. Tapping phones and voicemail.
Planting false information. Trailing family members. Threatening
reporters. Hiring cops, CIA officers and combat veterans to do all these
dirty deeds—and counting on little pushback from law enforcement,
mainstream media or Congress.
These are some of the ways that many of America’s largest corporations
have spied on nonprofits for years, according to a detailed new report
from the Center for Corporate Policy tracing decades of corporate
espionage where tactics developed for American intelligence agencies
have been imported by a long list of corporate giants for use against
“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Walmart, Monsanto, Bank of America, Dow
Chemical, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Chevron, Burger King, McDonald’s, Shell, BP,
BEA, Sasol, Brown & Williamson and E.ON have all been linked to
espionage against non-profit organizations, activists and
whistleblowers,” the report said, noting that its targets are
“environmental, anti-war, public-interest, consumer, food safety,
pesticide reform, nursing home reform, gun control, social justice,
animal rights and arms-control groups.”
“There’s so many different tactics,” said Gary Ruskin, the center’s
director and the report’s author. “It’s so important to talk about the
effects on our democracy and privacy. Civic groups can’t work if they’re
surrounded by serious espionage activities. And citizens don’t lose
their rights to privacy if they disagree with corporations.”
Compared to Europe, where some of the same corporate players—and their
staff or hired guns—have landed in court, been shamed in the media and
even given jail terms, spying against non-profits has flourished with
little legal consequence in America. The Justice Department almost never
investigates. Nor does Congress look at the practice, which clearly
would be illegal with its break-ins, thefts, threats, slander and
“If corporate espionage is done with impunity, or near impunity, it
invites more corporate espionage,” Ruskin said. “The Department of
Justice needs to investigate and prosecute where warranted, and Congress
needs to hold hearings.”
AlterNet counted a dozen dirty tactics and trends used by corporate
spies, whether inside “security” or “threat-assessment” staff, or a mix
of outside public relations and law firms and other covert operations
specialists. These trends start at the most basic level, like pretending
to be a volunteer, but escalate to cyber warfare and even blackmail.
1. Posing as volunteers.
For most of the 1990s, Greenpeace was repeatedly targeted due to its
campaign to phase out the use of chlorine in making plastics and paper.
In 2008, investigative reporter James Ridgeway reported on a trove of
documents obtained from an ex-employee of a private security firm,
Becket Brown International. The papers described how BBI planted
“undercover operatives” in many environmental groups, with a heavy
emphasis on Greenpeace. BBI wanted everything and anything about its
In late 2010, Greenpeace sued BBI’s backer—Dow Chemical—in federal
district court, citing anti-racketeering law. Its suit noted that “Mary
Lou Sapone, a BBI consultant and experienced infiltrator of nonprofits,
posed as a prospective volunteer” at its Washington, D.C. headquarters.
BBI knew the office layout, key codes to open doors, and much more, the
suit said. “BBI procured and held highly confidential Greenpeace
records, including, for example, confidential personal, financial and
employment records—which could only have been secured from Greenpeace’s
Greenpeace was not alone in being infiltrated by corporate spies. “From
the mid-1990s through much of the 2000s, Mary McFate was a prominent
volunteer for gun-control groups,” the Center For Corporate Policy
“She ran for a seat on the board of directors of the Brady Campaign to
Prevent Gun Violence, and worked closely with other national gun-control
organizations, such as the Violence Policy Center. She was director of
federal legislation for States United to Prevent Gun Violence. She was
deeply knowledgeable about the plans and actions of these and other
national gun conteol groups. They, however, did not know that her other
identity was Mary Lou Sapone, who since the late 1980s had been paid by
corporations to spy on citizens groups.”
Sapone, according to BBI documents cited by the report, had billed the
National Rifle Association “nearly $80,000” for 11 months of work during
2. Dumpster diving.
What corporate spies could not gather by walking into meetings and
offices as volunteers, they got by dumpster diving—stealing bags of
trash and sifting through them. Greenpeace’s lawsuit said that BBI and
others raided the dumpsters outside its Washington offices more than 120
times. What was especially notable about these raids is that a local
Washington police officer was part of BBI’s team, flashing his badge to
gain access to dumpsters kept behind locked fences. BBI also had
Baltimore police on its payroll.
Greenpeace wasn’t alone in having its trash targeted by corporate spies.
The report lists other environmental groups, as well as David Fenton,
who started a PR firm that represents progressives. His home was watched
by BBI and had its trash stolen after midnight, the report said, adding
that his firm’s office also was broken into a decade ago, “during which
boxes of files and two laptops were stolen. The culprits were never
3. Tapping phones and voicemail.
Greenpeace’s anti-racketeering suit—most of which was thrown out by a
federal court—also talked about other firms spying for Dow Chemical. One
was a company run by ex-National Security Agency officials, TriWest
Investigations, which procured “phone call records of Greenpeace
employees or contractors,” the report said, add that cellphones given to
Greenpeace employees were also tapped. “BBI’s notes to its clients
‘include verbatim quotes attributed to specific Greenpeace employees.’”
4. Casing offices, stealing files.
These first three tactics—posing as volunteers, stealing trash and
wiretapping—allowed a team of corporate spies, including the supposedly
credible PR firm, Ketchum, to steal all kinds of documents about
different Greenpeace projects. The corporate espionage report says the
same tactics also were used “on behalf of Kraft,” to “provide
intelligence about organizations opposed to genetically engineered
food.” The report notes these tactics were not confined to Washington,
but were also used against activists in Louisiana opposing petrochemical
plant pollution, immigrant farm workers in Florida working for a Burger
King supplier, Northern Californians opposing a new garbage dump, and
nursing home activists in Maryland.
5. Impersonating activists.
As businesses moved online, so did the practice of breaking into
websites and servers. In January 2011, the computer security firm HBGary
Federal claimed that it identified the leaders of the hacker collective
Anonymous. In response, the collective broke into the firm’s e-mail and
other accounts and put the contents online. In those files were details
of how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had been working to discredit its
Unlike Greenpeace’s dumpster-diving foes, HBGary and two high-tech
firms, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies—which both have
multi-million-dollar contracts with U.S. military and intelligence
agencies—created a plan to infiltrate U.S. Chamber Watch, which monitors
the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They proposed creating false
documents—basically, bait—to see if the watchdog group would use them,
as part of an effort to discredit it. The corporate consultants’ memos
also discussed creating a “fake insider persona” at another progressive
group, Change To Win, to release its forgeries. “Both instances will
prove that US Chamber Watch cannot be trusted,” its memo said.
7. Hacking and disrupting computers.
The trio of coporate spies, who call themselves "Team Themis," also
“proposed to wage electronic warfare against U.S. Chamber Watch and its
allies,” the report said. The team boasted of its capacity to place
“malware” and “custom bots” in Chamber Watch’s computers. These and
other details about Team Themis’ proposal were cited in a bar
association ethics complaint filed against lawyers working with the
corporate spies, the report said.
8. Trailing family members.
The high-tech team of thugs also boasted of following family members of
public-interest activists and journalists, according to their proposals
unmasked by Anonymous. “Other e-mails show that HBGary Federal
investigated the critics of the U.S. Chamber of commerce, including
their spouses, children, religious activities and personal lives—and
even gethered photos of them,” the report said, citing additional
reporting on its strategy from the New York Times and ThinkProgress.org.
“They propose to ‘use the following tactics to mitigate the effect of
adversarial groups,’” it said. “These tactics include: ‘Discredit,
Confuse, Shame, Combat, Infiltrate, Fracture’ They propose using these
tactics against the Center for American Progress, MoveOn.org, Velvet
Revolution, Move To Amend, JTMP (Justice Through Music Project), U.S.
Chamber Watch, Brad’s Blog, Joe Trippi, Brave New Films, New Left Media,
Agit-PoP, Courage Campaign and the Ruckus Society.”
These were not empty threats. In early 2011, while substituting for a
nationally syndicated talk radio host, Mike Malloy, and aggressively
talking about the Chamber’s anti-activist campaign, Brad Friedman’s
BradBlog website was knocked offline for several days. His personal
information was also displayed in Team Themis’ proposal.
9. Adding blackmail to disinformation campaign.
In late 2010, Julian Assange, then the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks,
announced he was poised to “take down” a big U.S. bank by revealing a
corruption scandal. Bank of America thought it was the target, and
received a Team Themis proposal that included spreading “disinformation”
about WikiLeaks, creating forged documents “and then call out the
error,” and a cyber attack against its “infrastructure,” the report
said. But the Team Themis proposal also suggested making “an implicit
threat to ruin the career of Glenn Greenwald, a prominent journalist, if
he continues to support Wikileaks.”
Equally disturbing, the U.S. Department of Justice apparently told Bank
of America’s top lawyer that the bank contact the law firm working with
Team Themis, Hunton & Williams, “according to an e-mail chain viewed by
the Tech Herald. If this is true, it raises questions of… how much
Justice Department officials knew of and even supported corporate
espionage against WikiLeaks and its allies,” the Center for Corporate
Policy report said.
10. Posing as journalists.
Another side of the corporate espionage universe is posing as a reporter
to quickly gather information about activists. In 2010, Kroll, which is
a private investigations firm, tried to recruit a journalist, Mary
Cuddehe, as a “corporate spy for Chevron,” the report noted. It “offered
her $20,000 to pose as a journalist while conducting interviews to
undermine a study of health effects of the [330-million gallon] oil
spill [around Lago Agrio, Ecuador]” by Texaco (which was aquired by
Chevron). She turned down the money and instead wrote an article about
the experience for the Atlantic.
11. Hiring cops, ex-spooks and veterans.
There are other dimensions to corporate espionage against nonprofits.
One is relying on members of the national security establishment—notably
ex-CIA or NSA employees—as well as moonlightling local police, and
Iraq-Afghanistan war veterans to do the spying, the report said. Many of
the proposals for anti-activist campaigns tout these credentials, citing
ex-military resumes as they seek fees ranging from hundreds of thousands
to several million dollars. “Even active-duty CIA operatives are allowed
to sell their expertise,” it said. “Corporations are now able to
replicate in miniature the services of a private CIA, employing
active-duty and retired officers from intelligence and/or law
12. Little pushback from law enforcement.
Hiring cops, spooks and vets to do corporate dirty work leads to one
more trend enabling corporate espionage to flourish. That is a lack of
accountability or legal consequence for espionage that clearly breaks
domestic law, such as stealing documents, wiretapping, etc. In France or
England, where some of these same actvities have come to the attention
of authorities, those responsible have been prosecuted and some
perpetrators have even gone to jail. Not so in the U.S.
“Hiring former intelligence, military and law enforcement officials has
its advantages,” the report notes. “First, these officials may be able
to use their status as a shield. For example, current law enforcement
officials may be disinclined to investigate or prosecute former
intelligence or law enforcement agents… In effect, the revolving door
for intelligence, military and law enforcement officials is yet another
aspect of the corporate capture of federal agencies, and another
government subsidy for corporations.”
What Americans Don’t Know
As detailed as the Center for Corporate Policy report is, author Gary
Ruskin says most of the information was obtained “by accident.” It
wasn’t freely given. It was the result of lawsuits, a handful of
whisteblowers, mistakes by those hired to do the corporate espionage,
boasts in trade press and other somewhat random sources.
But even so, there is a dark playbook that comes into view. Nonprofits
are scrutinzed for vulnerabilities. Computers are hacked. Documents are
copied or stolen. Phone calls and voice mail are secretly recorded.
Personal dossiers are compiled. Disinformation is created and spread.
Websites are targeted and taken down. Blackmail is attempted. Just as
bad, Ruskin says, the Justice Department and Congress look the other
“The entire subject is veiled in secrecy,” his report says. “In recent
years, there have been few serious journalistic efforts—and no serious
government efforts—to come to terms with the reality of corporate spying