Military Firm Used ‘War on Terror’ Tactics Against Standing Rock Protest

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Leaked documents reveal that the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, hired the private security firm TigerSwan to target Native water protectors at Standing Rock. We talk to Will Parrish, one of three reporters who broke this story for The Intercept, and Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network

Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. The Native-led pipeline resistance at Standing Rock faced a militarized crackdown. Now key details have emerged on just how militarized it was. The Intercept reports Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the pipeline, hired a private security firm to target the water protectors with military-style counter-terrorism measures. The company is named TigerSwan and The Intercept reveals it worked with law enforcement on sweeping and invasive surveillance of protestors and other disruptive tactics. The report is based on more than 100 leaked documents. In one, TigerSwan calls the Standing Rock movement an “ideologically-driven insurgency” and compares the water protectors to jihadist fighters.

I’m joined now by two guests. Will Parrish is one of three journalists who broke this story for The Intercept. Dallas Goldtooth is an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. Welcome to you both.

D. GOLDTOOTH: Happy to be here.

WILL PARRISH: Likewise.

AARON MATE: Will, I’ll start with you. We’ve known about the private security presence at Standing Rock for quite some time. This report of yours paints an unprecedented picture, revealing the presence of a private firm spying on protestors. Can you lay out for us what you found?

WILL PARRISH: I think the most striking thing about what we found is that TigerSwan, which started out as a military and State Department contractor primarily during the 2000s, has carried over the ideological presumptions from the war on terrorism into this operation involving the Dakota Access Pipeline. They refer to opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline as a jihadist insurgency. They talk about drawing on the lessons they’ve learned in being involved in military battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, applying those to the situation involving the Dakota Access Pipeline. They portray the water protector movements in the most menacing light I could possibly imagine. They use tactics that reflect that mindset. They tasked infiltrators with going into the camps, into protests, and fomenting division, gathering information on protestors’ plans and their backgrounds. They used electronic and aerial surveillance against people and they worked very closely with law enforcement, public law enforcement agencies, including federal, state, and local agencies that had a sort of parallel intelligence gathering operation that they were conducting which I think that last part is one of the most alarming things about what we found.

AARON MATE: Will, when you say that they sent in infiltrators, do the documents confirm that?

WILL PARRISH: Absolutely, yeah, they talk openly about using infiltrators to gather information. One example is that, in October, there was a rally in support of Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! and three other people who are facing charges that took place at a courthouse in Mandan. They’d been charged with being involved in a riot, supposedly, in September. In one of the documents we got, TigerSwan talks about how they are going to send in an infiltrator to pose as a protestor and use their cell phone to collect audio and video evidence of whatever they were trying to gather on people. So they had people posing as protestors going into situations like that.

One of the most interesting things in the leaked documents that we got was they talked about the importance of exploiting divisions between Native and non-Native people in order to so-called de-legitimize the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Over and over again in the documents we have, they keep sort of a running tally of different divisions that they have detected or observed at the camps and I assume the idea apparently is to exploit those, to increase those divisions, those threats to this sort of black-ops operation.

AARON MATE: Dallas Goldtooth, you were on the ground for a long time at Standing Rock. Hearing now this internal account of the tactics that were used against the water protectors, how does that square with what you experienced?

D. GOLDTOOTH: You know, news of this leak and the various tactics that were used by TigerSwan, although it was very terrifying, is not surprising. The usage of counter-terrorism tactics upon Native peoples, people of color, in the United States goes back for generations. I mean, you look back into the 1960s and 70s or the various social justice movements, civil rights movements that happened, the usage of cointelpro, which is counterintelligence programs, by the United States government was a well-established practice and that for us in our communities, we always worked under this assumption that we were being watched. In the camps in the fight against Dakota Access Pipeline, there was always this assumption that infiltrators were amongst us, that we were not safe even within our own organizing spaces because we knew that outside agitators, whether funded by the government or funded by a mercenary security firm, could potentially be in that space along with us.

But that last part, that last part, really speaks to what makes this unique. I feel like, in my perspective, my limited experience on this planet, is that we’re seeing something different now. Whereas in the previous civil rights movements we had government agents working to disrupt social movements, posing as water protectors or posing as activists or whatever may be, what we’re seeing now is mercenaries for hire being employed to do that work. You know, they’re subcontracting the surveillance and the disruption to outside security firms who got their experience, as Will had pointed out, was based off their experience in a war theater. So, it’s, is no surprise to me that we are seen, in TigerSwan’s descriptions, as insurgents or clarified as potentially being religiously fanatics or religious extremism. What happened on the ground, what continues to be a core part of our fight, is far from the fact.

We’re merely just common people standing up to protect our rights as indigenous peoples and to defend the sacredness of Mother Earth. We’re not, at the very core of our principles, there’s no advocation for violence. It’s clear adherement to the principles of non-violent direct action. You know, oftentimes, it’s our belief in the camps, through the countless months of altercation with police that it was these provocateurs, these infiltrators, that caused a lot of the friction, a lot of the violence that happened between police officers and our water protectors and honestly put a lot of water protectors’ lives at risk. That’s the part that’s infuriating is that our people were put at risk, that people were severely injured because of the tactics employed by TigerSwan. That’s something that cannot be absolved. That’s something that we cannot ignore. That’s something that has to really be spoken out about and also speak to the future implications of other fights, that this fight against other pipelines has expanded across the country.

Where else has TigerSwan infiltrated? Where else is our federal money, our taxes, going to pay off mercenary security firms to look upon US citizens on US soil who are trying to protect our lands, our communities, our bodies from future toxics and pollution?

AARON MATE: Let me play for you a clip. This is from Democracy Now! where a protestor noticed the presence of surveillance helicopters.

PROTESTOR: The helicopter itself has been following us, taking pictures and we’re filming them in return.

AARON MATE: So that’s a protestor remarking on the surveillance helicopters. These intercept reports reveals that TigerSwan was involved with the helicopter surveillance. Dallas, I’m wondering if you could set a picture for us of the security presence that you experienced when you were on the ground there at Standing Rock?

D. GOLDTOOTH: Look, you know, those of us that were in the camp, and I have to be absolutely transparent, my participation, there was a lot of other folks that were there for much longer than I. I have to give due recognition to all of our water protectors who put their lives on the line to stand up and protect the indigenous rights of the Standing Rock nation, other tribal nations along the route of that pipeline and who are still going through a lot of persecution to this day. Our experience there in the camps is something that a lot of folks joke around about now, the commonalities of that experience. The yellow security helicopter, the surveillance plane, you know, those two were constant presences in the air above the space whereas sometimes we would go for weeks on end, 24-hour, you would hear the airplanes and helicopters flying above our heads.

I mean, the first experiences was, it’s so amazing how used you get to that, how you get accustomed to that presence to when it’s not there it feels awkward. That’s how prevalent it became to where you would have constant planes flying over your head and for the sole purpose of watching you. We were used to our devices would stop working, our cellphone devices would stop working for periods of time. Hard drives in the camp, whether you were at the local casino where people would go to upload information or in the camps, they would be randomly cleared of information. I think there was also a lot of talks about the usage of fake cellphone towers that could be used to eavesdrop on you. Those were always constant things. We would hear over the radio on our camp security DAPL Security talking to us, taunting our security, taunting our people to act out, just to encourage it so that they’d have a reason to respond with violence, with police violence. Those were common, daily events.

It’s so much so to where a lot of our people that were in the camps now carry actual PTSD, you know, the symptoms that a lot of our veterans who went through combat went through. Of course, our folks were nowhere near the level of violence and the imagery that a lot of our combat veterans saw, but the triggers are very similar. There’s a lot of folks that, even myself, coming back to the city after being in the camps for so long got triggered by the sound of helicopters because there is just such an atmosphere of tension and anxiety when you’re in the camps and under constant surveillance.

AARON MATE: Will, you also reveal that TigerSwan might have taken part in collecting evidence to prosecute the protestors?

WILL PARRISH: Yeah, that is something that they talk about in documents we got which sort of lay out their overall mission and we’ve seen that in practice, too. I’ve been doing some reporting, just doing research and interviewing people for upcoming stories specifically about prosecutions of people who are involved in protests at Standing Rock. In a major federal felony case involving five, or I think actually it’s six, people now who are accused of being part of a highway blockade in October, the main evidence in court documents that I’ve looked at to support those felony prosecutions, where people faces years in prison potentially, comes from the overall private security operation that TigerSwan was overseeing. Photos and videos that were collected and aerial surveillance is the main evidence in these cases.

As I’m sure Dallas can recall or vouch for, the FAA, Federal Aviation Administration, actually had a no-fly zone in place that restricted any overflights to those of just law enforcement aircraft so the fact that the private security planes were flying over collecting this evidence that is now being used in these prosecutions, in effect, means that private corporations have been deputized to collect the surveillance and information to support prosecution of people protesting that exact same corporation. It’s crossing a threshold that I think is really dangerous and disturbing.

AARON MATE: I’m going to go to one clip just to give people a fuller picture of what TigerSwan was up to. They also created social media posts. In this video clip a man, Robert Rice, who worked for TigerSwan, doesn’t identify himself as working for TigerSwan but he posts a video aimed at the residents of North Dakota.

ROBERT RICE: Now, let us be clear. We are not against peaceful protesting. However, many of the members of this cell have been part of the destruction in Standing Rock last year. They’ve all been posting regularly on social media about how they refuse to be part of society. That means constantly asking for money and support from locals. We are not here to convince you they shouldn’t be welcomed into your community. We just want to make you aware of the full situation to keep you informed.

AARON MATE: Dallas, I love that quote because he says, “We just want to make you aware of the full situation and keep you informed,” but he doesn’t reveal that he’s a paid contractor for a private security company effectively making propaganda aimed at turning North Dakota residents against the Standing Rock water protectors.

D. GOLDTOOTH: Of course not, of course not. With all these, you know, this clear collusion between a corporation and law enforcement, you can’t expose your audience to the truth that you’re merely spinning falsities and lies for the benefit of law enforcement to inflict more damage and more violence upon peaceful water protectors. You know, there was a … We all knew that there was this, those of us that were doing media communications work in the camp and even just common people, knew that there was this media spin that was going out there and that was really being fed into all these right-wing, conservative outlets that spoke to a wide range of absurdities. I mean, it got so crazy that there was one news article, there was a report that people were shooting bows and arrows at airplanes. I mean, come on!

It’s so tainted with the tinge of racism that it could not be ignored. I think that, you know, there was all these accusations that, ranchers’ and farmers’ livestock were going missing but there’s been no viable evidence to prove that. There was all this stuff that kept coming up because they just kept trying to see what stuck on the wall. I think our … I think it really was awesome, amazing alternative news outlets and just kick-ass independent journalists is what really made that spin, the conservative spin, the pro-pipeline spin such a minority in the social space. It was all the people that were directly uploading from camp, whether they were live-streaming or on Facebook or Twitter or whatever may be. I think that really helped us and really overcome that.

I think it struggled in, that’s where you saw TigerSwan start becoming effective is near the tail end of the camps because a lot of our independent journalists started leaving. So they found their opportunity to really build up this false narrative. You know, what did we see? “Oh, the camp’s full of toxic stuff. Oh, that’s going to be an environmental disaster. Oh, they left two, three dogs behind and now they’re, like, they’re all anti-animals.” It was just absurd. We have to remember this is that the objectives for Dakota Access was to finish that pipeline and the objectives of the North Dakota law enforcement was to protect the company to achieve that objective, so they did whatever they could to the detriment of Mother Earth, to the detriment of the Native people that lived along that river, and to the future potential risk of an oil spill resulting from Dakota Access Pipeline.

It’s a sad reality we’re in and it’s terrifying to see this collusion between basically paid mercenary security firms and public officials and law enforcement. Where else is this happening? How many other places are we seeing this being integrated in fights beyond just environmental justice movements? Is this happening in other social justice movements across the country? What are the long-lasting implications of that? What are some of the legal actions that we as common citizens or as organizations, as non-profits, can do to stand up to this?

AARON MATE: Well, Dallas Goldtooth and Will Parrish, want to thank you for giving us something to think about. The article again is Leaked Documents Reveal Counter-Terrorism Tactics Used at Standing Rock to Defeat Pipeline Insurgency. My guests, Will Parrish, one of three journalists who broke this story, and Dallas Goldtooth, organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, who took part in the Standing Rock resistance.

Thanks for joining us.

D. GOLDTOOTH: Thank you.

WILL PARRISH: Thanks a lot for having us.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.