Spying on Environmental Journos No Longer Just Paranoid Fantasy

December 18, 2013

Sssh! You're not paranoid if they really are watching you. Industry groups and government agencies are outsourcing the job of spying on environmental journalists to firms that hire former NSA, CIA, and FBI investigators.

At least Abrahm Lustgarten, who won a Polk award for his ProPublica coverage of the fracking revolution, was targeted in 2009 by Stratfor — a for-hire intelligence agency. Stratfor's client was the American Petroleum Institute. Lustgarten has also won awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

You are not supposed to know this. Stratfor's reports to its clients are supposed to be "confidential." Documentation of Stratfor's spying on ProPublica was released November 15, 2013, by Wikileaks, the watchdog group whose leader Julian Assange, is currently being hunted by the U.S. government.

PR agencies, of course, have long kept tabs on environmental reporters. But the intelligence-gathering tactics of spy agencies like Stratfor are allegedly different: dumpster-diving, infiltration, and informal collaboration with government and law-enforcement officials, that go well beyond PR.

Stratfor is hardly the only industrial espionage firm — there are many others — just one whose operations have been extensively documented. Most of the spying targets seem to be activist groups rather than journalists. Clients include not just corporations, but also government agencies which may regard both activists and journalists as adversaries.

In a recent article for the Canadian Press, Ben Makuch reports that 13 Canadian federal departments had subscribed to Stratfor's services. Some of the agencies had not disclosed their contracts with Stratfor, despite legal requirements that they do so.

The contract spying, together with U.S. federal efforts to gain access to journalists' confidential communications with sources, have spawned a new interest among journalists in encrypting and anonymizing their communications.