Leaked Docs Reveal Private Security Firm’s Surveillance of Iowa Pipeline Protesters


An international private security firm with ties to the infamous, now-defunct military contractor Blackwater conducted routine surveillance of Dakota Access pipeline protesters in Iowa and the three other states the pipeline now funnels Bakken crude oil through, as leaked documents published by nonprofit news organization The Intercept this weekend revealed in greater detail than previously known.

Drawing from 100 documents provided by a contractor with the firm, TigerSwan, and another 1,000 obtained from a public records request, The Intercept reported that the firm met with the FBI’s Des Moines field office, became frustrated with the “reluctance” of three county law enforcement agencies “to arrest or cite trespassing individuals,” and produced several (since removed) astroturfing videos critical of protesters that were posted on the Facebook page DefendIowa.

In Iowa, TigerSwan focused much of its attention on the Mississippi Stand protest camp, which attempted to prevent Dakota Access construction contractors from burying the pipeline underneath the Mississippi River to connect it from Iowa to Illinois; and on Ed Fallon, a former state lawmaker opposed to the project, and the Bold Iowa environmental activism organization he heads (disclosure: I volunteered for Fallon’s gubernatorial campaign in 2006).

TigerSwan praised the efforts of authorities in Lee County, where the Mississippi Stand protests were held, in raising bail amounts, writing in an Oct. 16, 2016, situation report that the change was “significant because this may impede protestors from risking arrest due to the high cost to be released from bail.” The same report criticized law enforcement agencies in Boone, Calhoun, and Webster counties for “not [being] supportive of DAPL Security’s mission” because of their “reluctance to arrest or cite trespassing individuals.”

“We need to work closer with Calhoun, Boone, and Webster county [law enforcement] to ensure future protestors will at least be fined, if not arrested,” the report argued. “Alternatively, we could request Lee County LE speak to other counties about tactics that are working.” (Stacy Weber, the recently elected sheriff of Lee County, told The Intercept he hadn’t spoken with the previous sheriff about TigerSwan but that Don Felt, a program manager with the firm, stopped by his office last week to introduce himself.)

The situation report also mentioned that an Iowa fusion center had noticed a “video from Anonymous … threatening ETP executives,” referring to Energy Transfer Partners, Dakota Access LLC’s parent corporation; and a person driving a silver Toyota Prius in Boone County, “suspected to be [redacted] Ed Fallon’s legal representative.” The report added, “Security added to site until workers move to new location,” although it is unclear if the three events were viewed to be related.

A Sept. 22 report described protests planned in Iowa that the fusion center was monitoring, specifically mentioning Fallon “and his entourage” and accusing him of “harassing the customer’s pipeline workers.” A report dated Nov. 5 provides additional details of TigerSwan’s surveillance of protesters, including a note that a person whose name was redacted but is probably Cyndy Coppola “reiterate[d] the story that she was arrested ‘on her own land’ while protesting the pipeline” during an interview with comedian Lee Camp’s YouTube program and that this would become “a source of propaganda for protesters.” (Reached for comment, Fallon told The Intercept, “I’m honored that they felt that we were a big enough threat to go to this level of intervention.”)

An earlier situation report, dated March 29, described a meeting between TigerSwan and the the Des Moines, Omaha, and Sioux Falls field offices of the FBI (the latter two joining by conference call). “Also in attendance were representatives of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, Department of Homeland Security, Iowa Department of Emergency Services, Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Iowa Department of Wildlife,” the report stated. “Topics covered included the current threat assessment of the pipeline, the layout of current security assets and persons of interest. The FBI seemed were [sic] very receptive to the information presented to them, and follow-up meetings with individuals will be scheduled soon.”

“It’s no surprise that Energy Transfer Partners, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, and private security firms collaborated to protect corporate interests from a perceived threat by indigenous, family farm, and environmental social movements, but the documents released to date raise more questions than answers,” David Goodner, an Iowa activist who opposed the pipeline, told the Informer in a statement Sunday. “The Iowa Fusion Center; the Des Moines, Omaha, and Sioux Falls FBI field offices; the Iowa Department of Homeland Security; the Iowa Department of Emergency Services; and the Iowa Department of Wildlife should release all memos and materials about their surveillance operations to the public immediately.”

More broadly, the documents published by The Intercept show how TigerSwan cast the anti-pipeline movement in counterterrorism terminology, comparing protesters to jihadists and describing their cause as “an ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component.” In North Dakota, where the largest protests were held near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, the firm targeted protesters of Middle Eastern descent, noting that “the presence of additional Palestinians in the camp, and the movement’s involvement with Islamic individuals is a dynamic that requires further examination.”

The firm, founded by members of the US Army’s elite Delta Force unit, is headquartered in North Carolina and has offices around the world, including in the Middle East and Latin America. Since 2008, it has received nearly $60 million in State Department contracts for security work around the world; and the firm once did work with Blackwater, a private mercenary and security firm now known as Academi that gained notoriety for slaughtering Iraqi civilians and was founded by Erik Prince, the brother of Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.