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‘Spooky Business’: New report details spying and infiltration carried out by corporations against nonprofits and activists

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

According to a newly released report, former CIA, FBI, and NSA agents are routinely used by the world’s largest corporations and trade associations to spy on nonprofits. The report is called Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage against Nonprofit Organizations and released by the nonprofit Essential Information.

Now joining us to discuss the report is Charlie Cray. He’s a research specialist at Greenpeace USA. Between 2004 and 2014, Charlie directed the Center for Corporate Policy.

Thank you so much for joining us.


NOOR: So, to start off, what’s so bad about corporations doing this? We know that they act in their self-interest, and they’re going to do whatever they can to help their bottom line, to help their profits. Just talk about what is so bad about corporations spying on nonprofits that oftentimes challenge their policies.

CRAY: Sure. Well, corporations, just like any homeowner or individual, have every right to hire security professionals or install security alarms to protect themselves from theft of things like trade secrets or patent and so forth. And they do a lot of that. But we’re not talking about that here. What we’re talking about are corporations basically intruding on average citizens, disrupting their rights to express their opinions in public, undermining full participation in public policy debates, actually intruding on the property of nonprofits and stealing media lists, campaign strategies, supporter and donor lists, infiltrating these organizations and falsely representing themselves as volunteers and advocates on behalf of their cause–many instances of these. And there’s a whole spate of these kinds of activities which are essentially undermining the average person’s right to defend their own interests against corporate polluters or corporate scams, defective products, and other kinds of assaults on people.

NOOR: Now, what kind type of legal protections exist for individuals or for nonprofits against these types of intrusions?

CRAY: Well, there are some, and they have to be enforced. The problem is that we rarely discover these activities. We’re talking about, as you mentioned, ex-CIA, even active duty police, acting as subcontractors, usually, for these activities. They know how to intrude upon the property without leaving much of a trace or conduct electronic surveillance, hacking, and misrepresenting themselves. So it’s rare that we even have evidence of this activity. When we do, there are a number of tortious claims that can be, you know, filed against companies.

In fact, Greenpeace currently has a lawsuit against Dow Chemical, another chemical company called Sasso, two PR firms (Ketchum Communications and Dezenhall Resources), and a private security company made up of former Secret Service, FBI, Maryland State Police, and so forth, who targeted Greenpeace over a period of two years, intruded upon Greenpeace property, and stole documents, and did other things that we know of, including sending people in to case Greenpeace offices, sending volunteers in to infiltrate allied groups and undermine grassroots citizen activism in places like Lake Charles, Louisiana, where there are very large polluting facilities that people live right at the fence line and they have suffered from toxic emissions for decades. In fact, one of these communities was ultimately forced to relocate. Many of the people there got sick. And the local group that was created, volunteered time by citizens there that we worked with, was infiltrated by a mole that was ultimately, through sublayers of contracting, paid to do these activities, to infiltrate and disrupt their activities, by the chemical industry.

NOOR: Now, it almost goes without saying that the government, including the FBI, has been doing the same type of activities to civil rights and peace groups. You can go back to COINTELPRO in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Is this different than what the government does officially and legally for the most part?

POTTER: Well, it’s a good question. I mean, there’s a whole range of examples. In Spooky Business, our report, we aggregated about 30 different cases, not just in the U.S. but also abroad. And there are also examples where government and corporations are collaborating. We’ve heard about, for instance, fusion centers, where the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are sharing information with corporations and vice versa. Surveillance of the Occupy movement was in part done through a fusion Center in Manhattan. We’ve seen a lot of people moving in and out through the revolving door between the private sector and government agencies, and we’ve seen cases where CIA agents are moonlighting for corporations.

So a lot of this is new. You know, we have seen over the past few decades a rapid increase in the privatization of espionage and other government services to corporate contractors. And so you’ve seen kind of a lot of not only government functions taken on by for-profit corporations, but this has all sorts of ancillary effects, like, for instance, the moonlighting by CIA officers. We don’t even know, for instance, what kind of ethical standards there are that might forbid the use of government resources on behalf of corporations by a subcontractor for the government who is also simultaneously doing work for, for instance, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce targeting nonprofit watchdog groups set up by the labor movement and other groups. So this is something different from what we’ve seen in the past.

NOOR: Charlie Cray, thank you so much for joining us.

POTTER: Thank you.

NOOR: You can follow us on Twitter @therealnews. Tweet me questions, story ideas, comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


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Charlie Cray is a research specialist with Greenpeace USA. He has worked on and off with Greenpeace since 1989. Between 1989 and 1999 he and his colleagues campaigned for clean production and the elimination of dangerous materials and technologies such as hazardous waste incinerators that produced dioxin and other highly-toxic poisons.


Before returning to Greenpeace in 2010, Mr. Cray served as associate editor of Multinational Monitor magazine, as well as the director of the Center for Corporate Policy. He worked at Citizen Works (founded by Ralph Nader), where he co-authoredThe People’s Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy. He has published numerous articles on corporate crime, tax dodging, war profiteering, executive greed and other forms of and corporate power, as well as effective policies to address these and other issues. 


Mr. Cray is a graduate of Amherst College. Although he calls Chicago his home town, he currently lives in Washington, DC.