Corporate spooks and their dirty tricks
Spying on activists and disrupting their campaigns against the corporations has become a sinister growth industry. What they get up to is brilliantly exposed in a new book by Eveline Lubbers.
Review by Peter Arkell
The book is a timely reminder to activists, protest groups, agitators, environmentalists and revolutionaries that it is not only the state that employs spooks for covert investigations against those who question the status quo, but the corporations too.
Increasingly in the West it is the corporations that are setting the agenda, as the interests of government and big business converge and the state becomes little more than a cover under which the corporations flourish.
The book highlights the increasing co-operation between the state spooks and those working for the transnational corporations (TNCs). The corporate security departments of the TNCs are stuffed with former police and military men who take their well-developed instincts for secrecy and clandestine operations with them into their new well-paid jobs.
In Britain, there is an old-boys network straddling the state secret services (MI5 and MI6), the police (Special Branch), the corporations and the private security companies that work for them. Between them, they are in a powerful position to silence critics, influence public opinion, short-circuit protest campaigns and generally to undermine opposition to the business of making profits at any price. Of the state spies who move to private industry, Lubbers writes:
“The high-ranking officials who go private have been privy to classified and top-secret information for years. They take that knowledge with them and potentially retain continuing access to it through their networks within government intelligence agencies at home and abroad... The duty of serving the greater good seems to transform into serving the interest of the few.”
So why do the corporate giants need to dirty their hands to follow the risky path of spying on their critics, often following up with some form of even riskier covert action? The book details the case-studies of a number of instances where TNCs, in the face of well-organised and effective campaigns against them, have taken the decision to use informers and spies to gain intelligence before deciding what action to take.
In all of these cases, the facts have come to light, despite the TNCs’ best efforts, either through the actions of whistle-blowers, or the efforts of investigative reporters, or because the spies have been exposed, or because some of the victims have decided to stand and fight. One example is the two members of London Greenpeace who dragged out of McDonalds all kinds of secret information during the longest trial in British legal history. The author builds up a comprehensive picture of each case, showing why the corporation needed to resort to espionage, how they went about organising it, and what the consequences were.
These include Nestlé, one of the largest food companies in the world, who were facing a world-wide boycott in the 1980s of their infant formula baby milk after marketing abuses in selling it in under-developed countries came to light. The coalition against Nestlé included church groups and took the appearance, in the opinion of some business leaders, of a “holy war” against free enterprise and capitalism.
The company tried to ignore the problem hoping it would go away, but the boycott gained strength, so Nestlé hired a specialist. Rafael D.Pagan Jr, an American, brought into the equation a sophisticated strategy for breaking campaigns and boycotts against corporations, and for setting up a counter-propaganda operation. Like most others in this line of business, Pagan had a previous career in the armed forces that had shaped his world view.
He set about undermining the boycott through a covert strategy of divide and rule, trying to isolate the radicals from the moderate church groups. He ended the shouting match between Nestlé and the campaign leaders, sought to engage with all sides with the intention of isolating the activists, came out in support of the World Health Organisation Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes and set up the Nestlé Infant Formula Audit Commission in an attempt to deflect criticism.
These measures, together with attempts to try to gain credibility with universities, the scientific community and even the schools, did, for a while, weaken the boycott. But for the bone-headed outlook of the Nestlé management long-term, it might have succeeded in breaking up the boycott completely.
Shell Oil faced a similar international boycott for refusing to observe the oil embargo against apartheid South Africa. The company had at that time in the 1990s, blundered into two major PR disasters over the disposal of the Brent Spar oil platform (Shell planned to sink it at sea) and their close relations to the Nigerian military regime (writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others opposing Shell’s operations in that country were executed in 1998).
They too turned to Pagan for help, and he undertook a similar well-resourced secretive operation in order to influence public opinion and to divide the opposition. The Neptune Strategy involved developing different approaches to deal with the trade unions, the churches, black organisations and the schools and universities. In particular Pagan encouraged the setting-up of an “independent” organisation to prepare “South African blacks for leadership in a post-apartheid society”. The Coalition on Southern Africa (COSA), was launched by several prominent black clergymen in 1987, and was only later branded as a front group for business interests after the entire Neptune Strategy was exposed.
The book also relates in detail other case studies including the McLibel case, when McDonalds attempted to crush a small group of environmentalists for handing out a leaflet headlined “What’s Wrong with McDonalds”. Their strategy backfired spectacularly, when two of the activists resisted. In court McDonalds was obliged to reveal details of how they had infiltrated the group with their spies who even carried out leadership tasks within London Greenpeace and who made up, on occasion, a majority at the meetings (though none of them knew who the others were).
Monsanto who encountered huge opposition in Europe and South America to the introduction of genetically modified food hired Bivings, a company specialising in online intelligence, to shape and influence opinion. When a scientific paper, claiming that maize in Mexico had been contaminated across vast areas by GM pollen was published in Nature magazine, Monsanto and Bivings tried to influence the discussion amongst the scientists.
“Together,” writes Lubbers, “they created fake identities purposely for a covert counter-strategy to discredit the authors of the paper.” Two women, acting as independent third parties, skewed the discussion to the point where Nature eventually retracted the article, an unprecedented action in its 133-year-old history. The email addresses of these “virtual” people were eventually traced back to Monsanto and Bivings. It was even discovered that the archives of AgBioView which hosted the scientific discussion were stored on a Bivings Group computer.
Then there is the case of British Aerospace which, writes Lubbers, “explored every possible way to evade the debate about the arms trade and to hinder the work of peaceful campaigners”. At the behest of the company the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) was infiltrated by several spies so thoroughly that BAe knew everything about the organisation and their plans.
These included bank details, steering committee agendas and minutes, even the group’s email password. Armed with this kind of information, it was not difficult for the company to devise ways of neutralising the effect of the campaigns, such as arresting protesters for trespass before they had even arrived on site.
Such is the general suspicion about the activities of global corporations that they now all employ security specialists to monitor the political climate in which they operate and to launch actions in an attempt to change opinion and to destroy any groups or individuals that threaten their activities (and their profits). The details in the cases that have come to light make extraordinary reading, and can give anti-capitalist organisations more than a few clues about what to look for in their own groups.
“The case studies point to a general intolerance of dissent and a refusal of public scrutiny and accountability,” the author writes. “It is not simply a matter of PR. The aim of covert corporate strategy is not to win an argument, but to contain, intimidate and ultimately eliminate opposition. The strategies to prevent civil society from getting real power and the secrecy surrounding it present a real danger to democracy.”
Although the number of instances where the TNCs have been exposed for trying to sway public opinion and for espionage activities is impressive, there can be little doubt that many of the corporations carry out these operations as a matter of routine, almost of right, and get away with it. Specialist security firms are constantly selling intelligence, including blacklists, to whoever might be interested.
The author calls for more case studies and more research by investigative academics. She also calls for a legal framework to be established by government setting out a code of practice for the corporations as well as guaranteeing the rights of the victims. Some hope!
16 January 2013