TigerSwan’s Surveillance of Protesters in Iowa Continues

Newly published documents reveal the extent to which the private security firm has tracked the pipeline resistance movement in the state

SHARE
A TigerSwan employee monitoring pipeline opponents in Boone County. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Raffensperger

Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access crude oil pipeline began service June 1, but a private security firm employed by the company last year to monitor protests against the project in order to keep it on track remains active in Iowa, according to activists and a landowner who described recent personal encounters with the firm’s employees, as well as ETP itself.

The paramilitary-style international firm, TigerSwan, which is based in Apex, North Carolina, has recently been the subject of national news attention thanks to internal documents leaked to nonprofit news organization The Intercept that detail how it surveilled protest movements in the four states across the pipeline’s 1,172-mile route. On June 3, The Intercept published a second article in its ongoing series about TigerSwan along with additional internal situation reports prepared by the firm that reveal more details about how it tracked various protest groups in Iowa.

Those reports, spanning from Oct. 3 to Dec. 21 of last year, documented the whereabouts of the Lee County-based Mississippi Stand protest group after it decamped and attempted to raise funds to travel to the primary protest site in North Dakota near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation for the winter, activities of other anti-pipeline protesters and organizations including Ed Fallon’s Bold Iowa, and TigerSwan’s interactions with law enforcement agencies with which it shared its surveillance information. They provide compelling evidence that the protest movement was not just monitored on social media and the ground but also infiltrated.

“I asked him point blank, ‘Are you a member of TigerSwan?’ And he said he was.”

Many of the reports discussed the firm’s efforts to secure a site in Boone County east of Pilot Mound where Dakota Access construction contractors were preparing to lay the pipeline underneath the Des Moines River, an activity the reports said had been delayed because of drilling problems. There are several notes about protesters “surveilling” the area that include general descriptions of their appearances and vehicles, among other observations including the suspected use of a drone by activists hiding in the woods and gunfire heard in the area but presumed to be from a hunter.

On the day the pipeline began service, several longtime opponents of the project returned to the site to hold a vigil by the river. They decided to meet at the County Highway E18 bridge, which crosses over the river near the pipeline’s route underneath it. The first to arrive was Carolyn Raffensperger, an attorney who lives in Ames and the director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. To kill some time, she decided to drive down to the river, along the way passing the property of LaVerne Johnson, where a pipeline valve was constructed on an easement seized through eminent domain.

As Raffensperger drove back toward the bridge by Johnson’s property, a man got out of a car, blocking her path and taking photographs of her vehicle and license plate. She began taking pictures of him in return, and eventually he let her pass but got back in his car and tailed her closely. Raffensperger took a left turn back toward the river, and before long, a white SUV started following her, too. When she arrived, she found other vigil-goers and parked. The man in the car approached them wanting to chat, asking them basic questions like what their names were. They balked, but he wouldn’t leave them alone.

Todd, a TigerSwan security guard, in Boone County earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Raffensperger
Todd, a TigerSwan security guard, in Boone County earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Raffensperger

Then, Johnson drove by. Noticing the situation, he turned around to stop and check out what was going on, and soon enough, the man got in the middle of his conversation with Raffensperger and the others. As it turned out, the man’s name was Todd, and he had previously told Johnson that he was working for TigerSwan. “Nice fellow,” Johnson said. “He’s from out of state like everybody else. I asked him point blank, ‘Are you a member of TigerSwan?’ And he said he was.”

There has been other evidence, if unconfirmed, of TigerSwan’s continued presence in Iowa. On Facebook May 30, Fallon posted an anonymous tip he said he’d received about the firm: “TigerSwan is definitely deeply imbedded in Iowa. They have upped all of their men between Fort Dodge and Sioux Falls. Hotels in the areas in between are filled with their crews.” DefendIowa, a Facebook page that posted (since removed) videos critical of protesters featuring a TigerSwan employee using a fake name, as recently as May 31 criticized members of the Little Creek Camp protest group in Williamsburg. The page’s administrator did not respond to messages seeking details about its affiliation with TigerSwan.

Likewise, TigerSwan did not respond to requests for comment, but asked about firm’s current activities in Iowa, Lisa Dillinger, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, acknowledged through implication that it still has a presence in the state. “Our top priority is the safety of our employees, our assets and the communities in which we work,” she said. “Based on the level of threats that were made against the company, the pipeline and our employees, coupled with the illegal activity that was taking place by protestors, we felt it was necessary to put additional security in place for the protection of all involved.”

Dillinger did not cite specific examples of threats or illegal activity, although several are mentioned in the situation reports from late last year. TigerSwan took particular interest in the activities of Mississippi Stand, which originated as a protest camp in southwestern Iowa’s Lee County whose members attempted to prevent Dakota Access from laying its pipeline under the Mississippi River. Before the camp disbanded, the firm took notes about the group’s protest plans, which often ended in arrests for disrupting construction work. Protesters delayed Dakota Access’ efforts to pull the pipeline underneath the river from Iowa to Illinois, but by the end of October, the company completed the connection and the camp decided to take its protest on the road as a caravan performing acts of civil disobedience elsewhere in Iowa with the intention of eventually traveling to the protest camp in North Dakota.

After Mississippi Stand went mobile, TigerSwan continued to surveil the group, reporting that its “probable intent is to document as many DAs [direct actions] as possible to gain the support needed to fundraise enough money to last through the winter in ND.” The new focus, the firm added, had “reenergized” the group’s members, making “equipment sabotage … more likely” (although one report admitted that the “main protester groups in IA are not likely linked to the equipment fire in Buena Vista County” that became the subject of a federal arson investigation). Additionally, TigerSwan suggested, a member of the group, whose name The Intercept redacted because it didn’t get their direct permission to publish it, “may be a threat to LE [law enforcement] and may be more radical than previously thought” because they had recently shared a post on Facebook from a group called Blue Lives Murder, whose content largely consists of snarky memes criticizing police brutality with scattered, typically tongue-in-cheek comments making light of violence against cops.

TigerSwan appears to have regularly visited Mississippi Stand’s website during this time. It made note of an intake form on the site that the group used to recruit new members for its caravan, speculating that it may “function to ferret out DAPL [Dakota Access pipeline] employee infiltrators or to harmonize their efforts by only brining [sic] on similarly motivated activists.” The firm also likely used the site to track the group’s fundraising efforts — in a Nov. 9 report, it described how Mississippi Stand raised $750 following a protest at a Dakota Access drilling site by the South Skunk River, “confirming their tactic of utilizing action to gain financial support.”

Scenes from a construction equipment fire in Buena Vista county reportedly set with "coffee cans filled with oil and varnish," which TigerSwan determined wasn't likely caused by any of the main protest groups in the state after conferring with the Iowa fusion center. Photos: TigerSwan via The Intercept
Scenes from a construction equipment fire in Buena Vista county reportedly set with “coffee cans filled with oil and varnish,” which TigerSwan determined wasn’t likely caused by any of the main protest groups in the state after conferring with the Iowa fusion center. Photos: TigerSwan via The Intercept

Particular attention was focused on Alex Cohen, a core member of Mississippi Stand (and the young man speaking in the two Facebook videos embedded above and below), and his “band of activists.” Through geotagging, TigerSwan reported it tracked his location to the town of Malcolm, speculating that the group was headed north en route to the Des Moines River site in Boone County. The firm also noted other locations where it spotted members of the group, including a Walmart in Oskaloosa and the Diamond Lake campground in Montezuma, and that the State of Iowa Intelligence Fusion Center spotted them at the Elk Rock State Park campground in Knoxville.

On Nov. 10, the Mississippi Stand caravan reached the Des Moines River site, where three members of the group crawled inside the pipeline, remaining there until law enforcement eventually roped them out and arrested them for trespassing. According to the group, the action halted construction work for 17 hours, but in a situation report the following day, TigerSwan claimed they “were not aware of the drilling issues that prevented the work before the protesters even got there.” Nevertheless, the report added, the perceived success left them with a “sense of accomplishment” that would likely encourage a follow-up direct action in the area. The report also revealed that Iowa fusion center personnel were present at the site during the protest and speculated that the three people inside the pipeline may have drilled holes in it (a later report implied that they didn’t but added they would be held liable for cuts the company had to make in the pipeline to inspect it for damage).

Subsequent situation reports outlined developments that may have given Mississippi Stand second thoughts about its plans to travel to North Dakota. One noted that the Nov. 10 arrests were “[s]ignificant because this must have drastically decreased their funds,” likely forcing them to tap into their caravan money to pay for legal costs and discouraging protesters with charges from compounding them with more arrests. Another described the group’s criticism of the Standing Rock Tribal Council’s decision to ask the Red Warrior camp, situated near the main Sacred Stone camp, to disband because of its protest tactics including property destruction that the council worried were hurting the movement’s image. (“Significant because this directly ties MS with the Red Warrior Camp and opens up the possibility of the two groups working together in the future,” the report said.)

A Nov. 19 report said the group was “disheartened” after two of its members were arrested on felony charges for locking themselves to construction equipment during a recent protest, adding that their efforts would be “increasingly limited” by legal costs and colder weather and that they might turn to “surreptitious equipment sabotage” actions with less risk of arrest such as “putting sugar in fuel tanks.” (An earlier report made note of an opinion attributed to Cohen that “protesting in IA is safer than in ND.”)

In a Facebook post published Tuesday, Cohen reacted to the revelations of how TigerSwan surveilled him and the broader movement, saying he was proud of his efforts fighting the black snake — a reference to a tribal prophecy about banding together to fight a common enemy, in this case the pipeline. “I was living at Mississippi Stand for months fighting the Pipeline and in that time we were physically and verbally assaulted by DAPL mercenaries, ran off roads, followed, legally and tactically intimidated,” he wrote. “[E]very single move we made was video taped by DAPL goons. None of these documents are a surprise to us that were there.”

Ed Fallon, the former state representative who now directs the environmental activism organization Bold Iowa, similarly said he’d presumed Dakota Access was spying on protesters. “But when you see the detail revealed with this amount of clarity,” he added, “it’s just shocking to consider the extent to which they were willing to go to try to thwart our efforts.” (Disclosure: Before pursuing a career in journalism, I volunteered for Fallon’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign as a high school senior and college freshman.)

In the situation reports, TigerSwan also focused considerable attention on Bold Iowa and Fallon specifically, documenting among other things their dissemination of “anti-DAPL propaganda.” A Nov. 7 report mentioned that Fallon was raising funds for then-congressional candidate Kim Weaver because of her opposition to the pipeline. Three days later, another report noted that he gave a lightly attended speech on climate change and the protests in North Dakota at the tribally owned WinnaVegas Casino Resort in Sloan. On Nov. 17, a report described a message from Sen. Joni Ernst that he posted online “in which she explains the oil in the DAPL pipeline will merely transit through Iowa,” a statement he used to question whether the Iowa Utilities Board was justified in allowing private property to be seized through eminent domain for the project on the grounds it served a public purpose. And on Nov. 21, a report made a brief reference to Bold Iowa’s ongoing campaign to encourage people to divest from banks with financial ties to the pipeline.

As with Mississippi Stand, TigerSwan documented struggles Bold Iowa encountered in mobilizing against the pipeline. In a Nov. 13 report, the firm described how the organization wanted to stage a protest at a drill site by Indian Creek in central Iowa, “but leaders Ed Fallon and Heather Pearson (featured at the bank in the video above) indicated they simply do not have the numbers in their group for effective actions.” Fallon acknowledged that the conversation happened. “That was kind of a private comment, so one of the people who overheard that comment was apparently one of TigerSwan’s plants,” he said.

“There’s a lot of takeaways” from the situation reports, he added, “but the most important one is this: What we did really mattered. What we did really unnerved them. And the truth is, if what Bold and [Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement] and Mississippi Stand had done involved mass civil disobedience, there would be no oil flowing through that pipe.”

Whether or not that’s actually true — two days after the election, TigerSwan reported that “[p]rotester morale has deteriorated due to the presidential election results,” and President Trump fast-tracked the pipeline’s completion just days after taking office in January despite a massive resistance effort in North Dakota that had generated international attention — it seems clear that Dakota Access and the security firms it hired took the threat the movement posed to the completion of its project seriously enough to infiltrate and disrupt it.

A barrel lock box, which TigerSwan noted "combines the popular black bear with a barrel full of concrete," that protesters used to block an access road in Mahaska County near the South Skunk River. Photos: TigerSwan via The Intercept
A barrel lock box, which TigerSwan noted “combines the popular black bear with a barrel full of concrete,” that protesters used to block an access road in Mahaska County near the South Skunk River. Photos: TigerSwan via The Intercept

Last December, in the most recent situation report published by The Intercept, TigerSwan noted that, in the past day, it had traveled to Grinnell to attend a Bold Iowa training session before departing to a pipeline pump station near Interstate 35 between Huxley and Cambridge in Story County — where it had “[e]scorted VIPs” to the previous month — to “perform static security” the following day while also attending another Bold Iowa training session in Des Moines. Fallon suspects he knows who at least one of the infiltrators was, a purported activist who tried to convince him to join a protest independent of his organization that “was going to involve some really questionable behavior.”

David Goodner, a longtime activist who currently lives in Iowa City, called TigerSwan’s presence at the training sessions the “biggest Iowa-centric development I see in this latest batch” of documents published by The Intercept. “Undercover informants pose a significant danger to activists and water protectors, even more so when paramilitary mercenaries are the ones infiltrating our meetings and trainings without identifying themselves,” he said. “The Iowa fusion center and all related law enforcement agencies need to disclose all their documents, memos, and meeting notes with TigerSwan.”

The situation reports published with the first Intercept article revealed the firm’s efforts to sway county sheriff’s offices to crack down on protests, with mixed results, and also the firm’s communications with state and federal authorities including the FBI and Iowa fusion center, which was established in December 2004 to help state and local authorities share information with the feds. The reports published with the second article further illustrate TigerSwan’s relationship with these authorities. After three protesters were arrested Nov. 8 for blocking an access road that led to a 12-hour construction shutdown at a drill site by the South Skunk River, the firm said it met with then-Mahaska County Sheriff Paul DeGeest, who “was very appreciative of intel that IA Fusion shared concerning Mississippi Stand members, their history, and tactics.” On Nov. 19, the firm reported that it recently “[c]oordinated with the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office on security of the Indian Creek HDD [drill site] and shared intel.”

Jan Flora, a retired Iowa State University sociology professor who was named along with his wife Cornelia in TigerSwan’s Nov. 18 report, raised concerns about the lack of transparency in these public-private relationships. “The implication of that is you have this private entity that has no oversight, and they obviously had close ties with the FBI — not that we’re concerned about ourselves — but in general there’s no way of correcting erroneous information that could ultimately be pretty serious for somebody, and I think that’s particularly true with Native Americans.”

Several people who spoke to the Informer pointed out erroneous or unreliable information in the TigerSwan reports, including misspelled names, mistaken identities, and shaky assumptions about protesters’ motives. The firm botched several details about the Floras, who are described as “[n]ew POIs [persons of interest]” in the report. It claimed that Jan “put up his house” in order to raise bail money for two protesters whose names are redacted. But that made no sense, he said — he bailed out a friend he was arrested with for trespassing at a Boone County demonstration last August and said he may have contributed a small additional amount to a bail fund, but all told, the bail and fines for his own arrest totaled less than $600. The report said Jan was arrested at a separate protest in Calhoun County that he didn’t attend — “The only thing I can figure out is that there was some other old guy that they attached my name to,” he said. It also cites an unnamed source saying the Floras’ “house is out of state. Most likely somewhere in Kansas” — they own a farm in western Kansas that belonged to Jan’s parents but live in a house in Ames — and misspells Cornelia’s name “Corneila.”

“There’s no particular reason that I can think of, if you really wanted accurate information, that you would hire someone that did the sorts of things that Blackwater did in Afghanistan, because it’s clear from the articles that these folks had a very militaristic perspective on the protesters,” Jan said, referring to TigerSwan’s ties to the infamous private mercenary firm now known as Academi. “And the other thing that struck me was that they were provocateurs, not necessarily of the protesters, but provocateurs of the law enforcement people by making these erroneous statements about what was happening, particularly in the camp in North Dakota.”

Near Standing Rock, protesters (or water protectors, as many in the movement call themselves instead) frequently contested official narratives of alleged wrongdoings, some of which were promoted by TigerSwan, from who instigated a construction site clash that led to the arrest of journalist Amy Goodman to who was to blame for dead livestock found in the area or a grisly injury that nearly cost a young protester her arm.

Three days after Jan Flora spoke to the Informer, the Fargo, North Dakota-based alt-weekly High Plains Reader published an article based on an interview with a former Dakota Access security employee who made explosive (and, so far anyway, unproven) allegations about the firms hired by the company, including TigerSwan — that employees, who were often abusing meth and prone to thievery, were encouraged to infiltrate the camp to commit crimes, provoke protesters to get them arrested, and set their own equipment on fire, all to place the blame on the resistance movement in order to undermine its efforts. (TigerSwan, the Reader reported, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Wherever the truth lies, tensions in Iowa never rose to the boiling point they did in North Dakota. But private security guards hired by the company here continue to interfere with the day-to-day lives of landowners along the pipeline’s route. LaVerne Johnson, the landowner who identified the TigerSwan employee by his farm outside Pilot Mound on which Dakota Access constructed a pipeline valve, said the security presence remains constant. “When I show up at my farm, they usually show up at the valve within five or 10 minutes, so they must have some kind of surveillance at the valve,” he surmised. “They’re a pretty aggressive bunch, as far as security. They have 24/7 security on that pipeline. I haven’t checked them every night, but they’re checking on that valve and sometimes just parked down there for hours at a time.” Despite this, he added, he recently had fuel stolen from a pump “which is not over 200 foot from where they park, and they never saw a thing.”

The Dakota Access pipeline valve on LaVerne Johnson's property. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Raffensperger
The Dakota Access pipeline valve on LaVerne Johnson’s property. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Raffensperger

From the outset, Johnson tried to keep Dakota Access off his land, in the summer of 2015 resisting an injunction ordering him to allow surveyors on it — an initial step in the company’s process of obtaining easements on private property through eminent domain. Other landowners, including some of his neighbors, signed voluntary easement agreements with the company, unwilling and financially unable to endure the stress of fighting it. Even after the pipeline’s completion, the presence of the company’s hired security continues to have a detrimental effect on their health and wellbeing — some are getting on in years — according to Johnson.

Although Johnson was unable to prevent Dakota Access from taking his land, his fight is not over. He has joined other landowners and the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club to fight Dakota Access and the Iowa Utilities Board in court, arguing the company was unlawfully allowed to use the power of eminent domain in violation of private property rights. Last month, the Iowa Supreme Court denied the company’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which pipeline opponents hope will eventually force it to halt service.

The high court’s ruling against Dakota Access revealed another detail indicative of the close relationships between private corporations involved with the project and state government. In addition to denying the company its motion, the court granted a request from Richard Lozier, the IUB’s newest member, to withdraw from his work as legal counsel for the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, an industry coalition that supported the pipeline and whose deceptive public relations efforts were run by DCI Group, a firm whose past work ranges from doing consulting for the Koch brothers-founded Americans for Prosperity and spreading disinformation about climate change and Wall Street reform to shilling for Big Tobacco and the former military dictatorship in Burma.

Iowa Utilities Board member Richard Lozier, a former legal adviser for a pro-pipeline group.
Iowa Utilities Board member Richard Lozier, a former legal adviser for a pro-pipeline group.

Lozier was appointed in March to begin serving on the board May 1, about two weeks before the Supreme Court’s approval of his request, by then-Gov. Terry Branstad, who always claimed he had no position on the pipeline project despite his support for eminent domain and close alliance with US secretary of energy and former Energy Transfer Partners corporate board member Rick Perry. Lozier has already recused himself from a board ruling about an overdue Dakota Access insurance filing. Previously, Nick Wagner, another Branstad appointee to the board, said that climate change should not play a role in the IUB’s determination of whether to approve the project and dodged a question about whether he even believed the problem existed — further evidence of the obstacles opponents of the pipeline have faced.

Still, Johnson remains hopeful that the resistance will defeat Dakota Access and its many allies in government and the private sector in the end, even though its efforts failed to prevent the project’s completion. But he’s under no illusions about the uphill battle this would require. “They have probably hundreds of attorneys, and we have two,” he said, chuckling. In the meantime, as protests against the pipeline continue, landowners along its route remain wary of the intrusive surveillance activities of the company’s private security apparatus.

SHARE
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.