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Environmental Espionage: Inside a Chemical Company's Louisiana Spy Op

Facing lawsuits and activist outcry following a massive chemical spill, Condea Vista called in Beckett Brown International's for-hire spies to infiltrate its opposition.

| Tue May 20, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

The BBI documents show that the security firm had also surveilled the homes of other local activists, followed them, and attempted to trace the funding sources for their campaigns. One of the main focuses of BBI's Lake Charles operation was a group called the Calcasieu League for Environmental Action Now, known as CLEAN, which in the 1990s was working in coordination with Greenpeace to hold local industry accountable for polluting the environment. In 1998, BBI set up an operation to gather information on CLEAN, hiring a "research consultant" named Mary Lou Sapone, who had experience infiltrating activist groups, to oversee the job. Sapone, in turn, hired an operative, an area school teacher, to pose as an activist in order to penetrate CLEAN. (Attempts to locate the operative for comment were unsuccessful. Sapone did not respond to a request for comment.)

After joining the environmental group, the mole ascended quickly through its ranks, soon taking part in high-level strategy meetings. All the while he was reporting back to Sapone, telling her what the activists were planning, identifying the scientists who were working with them, and providing information on the internal rivalries within the Lake Charles activist community. Sapone passed the intelligence on to BBI, which then used it to formulate briefings for its client, Condea Vista. In one such briefing, dated August 20, 1998 (PDF), the security firm boasted that its "operative is being nominated to the citizen action panels for local industries" and it asked which local industry Condea Vista would prefer the operative to focus on. Another BBI document (PDF) noted, "The operative has been trained to be inquiring, but not participatory. Operatives are not allowed to offer suggestions or 'help' the targets in any way. They are trained to seek documents, ID friends and foe legislators and regulators, follow money trails, ID informants, discover future targets." Filo recalls that during the period in which the mole was apparently active, CLEAN held frequent nighttime meetings in his law firm's offices.

Among BBI's targets in Louisiana was a Greenpeace organizer named Beth Zilbert who was then working with CLEAN. Dodd's files contain her phone records and numerous references to surveillance on Zilbert, with notes on her address and the license plates of vehicles that came and went from her house. Jay Bly, a former Secret Service agent who served as BBI's "manager of special projects," traveled to Lake Charles to conduct surveillance on Zilbert's home and Filo's office, reporting back to Tim Ward, a vice president at the firm and later its president. In some cases, Bly tailed vehicles as they left Zilbert's home. According to Bly's official BBI bio, his responsibilities at the firm ranged from handling "complex competitive intelligence and due diligence inquires" to the "management of misinformation campaigns and opposition research." (After BBI, later known as S2i Security, disbanded in 2001 Ward set up his own security company, Chesapeake Strategies, where Bly now works. A lawyer representing Ward and Bly did not respond to a request for comment. Ward has declined requests for comment.)

In a telephone interview, Zilbert, now an attorney in Lake Charles, laughed about the surveillance reports, but talked of frequently feeling threatened during that period. "We knew someone was following us," she says.

In depositions of Bly and Ward taken by Perry Sanders late last September and obtained by Mother Jones, both men, on the advice of their attorney and lawyers representing Conoco and SASOL, declined to provide details on their Louisiana operation. They did, however, confirm that they had worked on behalf of Condea Vista in Lake Charles, as well as in Washington, DC. Asked by Sanders whether all the information they had collected on Condea's behalf had been gathered with the company's authorization, Ward replied, "yes." Questioned on whether, during the course of BBI's work for Condea, the security firm "had the occasion to gather information from lawyers," Ward's attorney stopped him from answering, citing a Maryland statute that he said precluded Ward from breaching client confidentiality. As Sanders pursues his case, he intends to challenge the confidentiality claim in an effort to force Ward and Bly to shed more light on BBI's activities.

Greenpeace, a BBI target in Washington as well as in Louisiana, has launched its own investigation and is currently mulling its legal options, which could include filing civil suits against the companies that employed BBI, as well as some of the firm's one-time operatives. The group has sent a task force to comb through John Dodd's archive, and is currently trying to figure out the depths to which its operations were penetrated. "Our assessment right now is that they used something beyond dumpster diving as a source," says one Greenpeace official with knowledge of the investigation. Among the internal documents that ended up in BBI's possession were donor lists and the social security numbers of employees—sensitive records, the Greenpeace official says, that would be unlikely to wind up in the trash. "If you were known to have thrown these away, you would have been fired," the official says. He added that around Greenpeace's Washington offices, the news that the organization was the target of an elaborate intelligence gathering operation was viewed as a badge of honor. "That they were coming at us that hard with these ops means we were effective."

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