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Black Ops, Green Groups

Why did a private security firm spy on Greenpeace and other environmental outfits?

| Fri Apr. 11, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

By 1998, BBI had 22 employees working in five different divisions, along with subcontractors that it hired as operatives. The company also looked abroad for new opportunities and recruited more law enforcement and intelligence veterans. David Bresett, a former chief of the Secret Service's foreign intelligence branch, joined the firm as a vice president. (A company biography noted that Bresett, while detailed to the CIA, had directed the investigation that identified the terrorists who blew up Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.) The firm retained Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, and earlier one of the government officials responsible for overseeing U.S. support of the Nicaraguan contras, as a consultant at $75,000 a year. "I did due diligence on a couple of customers," Cannistraro recalls. On the advice of Cannistraro and Bresett, BBI turned down a $1 million job with the Church of Scientology, according to Dodd. (Bresett did not respond to a message asking for comment.) At one point, an employee named Tim Ward, who had been a sergeant in the Maryland state police, traveled to Saudi Arabia for the company, according to Dodd.

Phil Giraldi, a former CIA officer, was also on the payroll. According to Giraldi, there was not a lot of work for him and Cannistraro. "We would go to a company like Enron and see if they had any issues if they were looking to acquire a company," he recalled. "See if the [company to be acquired] is connected to the Russia mob. That's what we were selling. We were not very successful." Giraldi left the firm in 1999. By then, he had become aware of the firm's more unconventional activities: "Scooping garbage, trying to get penetrations of companies and environmental groups. I didn't know a lot of the details." But, he says, he knew BBI was "working on Greenpeace."

In 2000, the firm—which had changed its name to S2i after Richard Beckett left the company—was targeting a group of activist organizations opposed to genetically engineered food that had formed a coalition called GE Food Alert. In the fall of 2000, with these groups poised to assail Taco Bell, S2i operatives got on the case.

Their thoughts soon turned to garbage.

On September 26, Jay Bly, a former Secret Service agent working for S2i, sent an email to Tim Ward, the former Maryland state trooper on the payroll:

Received a call from Ketchum yesterday afternoon re three sites in DC. It seems Taco Bell turned out some product made from bioengineered corn. The chemicals used on the corn have not been approved for human consumption. Hence Taco Bell produced potential glow-in-the-dark tacos. Taco Bell is owned by Kraft. The Ketchum Office, New York, has the ball. They suspect the initiative is being generated from one of three places:
1.Center for Food Safety, 7th & Penn SE
2.Friends of the Earth, 1025 Vermont Ave (Between K & L Streets)
3.GE Food Alert, 1200 18th St NW (18th & M)
#1 is located on 3rd floor. Main entrance is key card. Alley is locked by iron gates. 7 dempsters [sic] in alley—take your pick.
#2 is in the same building as Chile Embassy. Armed guard in lobby & cameras everywhere. There is a dumpster in the alley behind the building. Don't know if it is tied to bldg. or a neighborhood property. Cameras everywhere.
#3 is doable but behind locked iron gates at rear of bldg.

In this email, Bly explained the urgency and the goal: "Apparently there is an article or press release due out next week and [Ketchum] would like some pre release information." He then turned practical: "I want to send Sarah [another BBI employee] to site #1 for a job inquiry. She can see how big the offices are and get the lay of the land. Maybe this will narrow the field. If they have a job opening could she work there for two or three days to find out what's going on?" The Friends of the Earth site, he noted, would be tougher to penetrate. As for the garbage of GE Food Alert, Bly had a plan: "if we can get some help from our friends who ride the truck. The alley is tight. I think the truck can drive down the alley but the container probably is rolled out and dumped. Looks like one dumpster for the building. I'm sitting on the building at 4:00 am tomorrow morning (if Ketchum gives us a budget)." And Bly noted that there were other possible opportunities: "we have found some other affiliates with the above groups. We are looking for their locations in [Washington, D.C.] and hopefully a more S2i friendly site."

The following day, Bly emailed Ward about his early morning surveillance:

Re: Dumpster Dive.
I got hold of Jim Daron [a Washington police officer working for BBI] yesterday. He was supposed to do Vermont Ave and Penn Ave SE last night. I have not heard from him today—what's new. I did 18th St. Weard [sic] set up—the dumpster is behind locked gates. The truck drives down the alley and rings for the night guard to open the gate. The guard comes out, unlocks and goes back into the building (probably pissed off because they woke him up), the guys walk the bags out to the truck one at a time. When they finish they locked the gate behind them. There was so much trash they had to compact the truck two times while they were there. I did not find anything from the 5th floor, but the good news is it's doable.

On September 28,Ward responded:

Good news! Think that once Jim [Daron] calls you back we will know where we stand. If he can't get in with the shield, it will be difficult at sight #1. I think #2 we can do regardless. The issue is a hot one in general. I've been following it from here. Don't forget our GP [Greenpeace] boy in Baltimore has been handling the work for GP. It may be worth a check in the city. Maybe one of our BPD [Baltimore Police Department] guys can hit that one. When you talk with the client push the fact that their client (the cheese people)…should put together a trend tracking program for the future. The anti's now have found an exposed corporate target and they will be back for more blood.

This email appears to suggests that the Beckett Brown operatives were considering using a Washington police officer's badge to gain access to the garbage of the Center for Food Safety. And Ward was apparently hoping that Beckett Brown could persuade Ketchum to hire the company to monitor the ongoing activity of the activists opposed to genetically-engineered food.

These emails do not indicate whether Beckett Brown succeeded in scooping valuable intelligence from the garbage at these three sites. But Beckett Brown had already managed to penetrate the anti-GE food network. In a 1999 report to Ketchum—entitled "Intelligence Analysis for Dow Global Trends Tracking Team" —BBI described in detail a strategy session held by 35 representatives of various environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, US PIRG, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. The report noted the targets the coalition was considering (Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, the Grocery Manufacturers of America) and listed various tactics the group had discussed. Such strategy meetings of this coalition were confidential, according to Dale Wiehoff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Neither Bly nor Ward would discuss this series of emails or any of the work they did for Beckett Brown or S2i. "Legally, I can't tell you anything about what the company did," Ward says. He accuses Dodd of trying to "besmirch the names of the people involved" in the company. Rakowski, Daron, and Beckett did not reply to requests for comments. Nor did Ketchum. A spokesman for Kraft says, "After a review of our historical procurement files, we have no record of work on or about Sept. 26, 2000, with either Ketchum, Beckett Brown International or S2i. In the late '90s, Ketchum provided some PR services to Kraft for one of our coffee brands. However, Ketchum does not currently provide PR services to Kraft and has not done so for many years."

Time and again, according to Beckett Brown records, the firm looked to trash for intelligence. These trash runs at one point did raise concern within the company. In 1998, David Queen, a senior vice president, sent Rakowski a memo about "dumpster diving." Queen, a former deputy assistant secretary of the treasury and once a U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania, noted that in certain instances searching trash could raise "some troublesome issues," including possible violation of state trespass laws and "possible violation of trade secrets laws." He concluded, "If BBI expects to use this method of information gathering, it would be prudent to get the opinion of outside counsel which could be relied upon by BBI should there be future litigation directed against BBI."

Whether or not BBI sought counsel, the dumpster diving continued. In November 1999, according to company documents, Jay Bly traveled to St. Augustine, Florida, to meet with a private detective. He told the investigator that BBI wanted to obtain garbage from the offices of Whetstone Chocolates, a locally based candy manufacturer. (According to BBI billing records, BBI at the time was working for Nichols-Dezenhall on a "Nestle Project-Florida." At press time, Nestle had not responded to a request for comment.) This private investigator and another local gumshoe then tracked the garbage men who made pick-ups at Whetstone and tried to persuade one of the drivers to turn over the trash from Whetstone. The trash collectors wouldn't cooperate. A month later, another private investigator apparently attempted to grab the garbage himself. He sent Bly a fax reporting, "We made a pickup run on December 23,1999 as requested. We were unable to enter the area where the dumpster is located as there appeared to [be] a company party taking place in the break area located in front of the dumpster. We remained in the area for a short time, however, the party continued and we departed the area." A December 1, 1999, BBI briefing paper on a "Nichols-Dezenhall/St. Augustine Project" reported on activities within Whetstone and said that "BBI now has operative in place."

Eric Dezenhall says that he cannot identify clients or vendors with which his firm worked. But he notes in an email that he never saw the briefing paper referring to a BBI operative and Whetstone and that "we would not have been involved in any infiltration operation." He adds, "Nichols-Dezenhall Communications never authorized, directed, or was informed of unethical or illegal activities by forensic investigators employed on any project we have worked on. With regard to our work on matters in which we were teamed with investigators, we are aware only of information-gathering through public records checks and other legitimate means." Dezenhall says that "any use of an 'operative' to infiltrate a company…would be counter to our business interests and any information gathered in that manner would be unusable in court." (In 2003, Dezenhall bought out Nichols and renamed the company Dezenhall Resources. "Our client base and employees from the 1990s have turned over almost entirely," Dezenhall says. According to a source familiar with the firm's current operations, the company has moved away from handling corporations involved in environmental controversies.) Another target of BBI's trash men was Fenton Communications, the liberal PR firm headed by David Fenton that for years has assisted environmental causes. On December 8, 1999, a BBI operative, according to an internal report, "sat surveillance" at Fenton's Washington home, beginning at 2:50 am. In the report, the operative noted the time of the morning garbage pick-up and that he returned to the office to "sort material" and "analyze." BBI ran background checks on both Fenton and his then-wife. The company's files contained photographs of their house as well as client lists, billing information, and personnel information from Fenton Communications. Between July 1998 and February 2001, Fenton says, his firm experienced several break-ins, during which boxes of files and two laptops were stolen. The culprits were never caught.

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