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As the result of a suit brought by The Guardian, the FBI has admitted it opened a file on three environmental activists illegally. How many more such investigations is it involved in?

Fossil Fuels

Bill McKibben Calls FBI Tracking Of Environmental Activists “Contemptible”

As the result of a suit brought by The Guardian, the FBI has admitted it opened a file on three environmental activists illegally. How many more such investigations is it involved in?

As the result of a Freedom of Information suit brought by The Guardian, the FBI has revealed it maintained an open investigation of — the climate activism group founded by Bill McKibben — and its members as part of an ongoing anti-terrorism campaign. “Trying to deal with the greatest crisis humans have stumbled into shouldn’t require being subjected to government surveillance,” McKibben says. “But when much of our government acts as a subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry, it may be par for the course.” He added the FBI’s apparent failure to distinguish between nonviolent civil disobedience and domestic terrorism was contemptible.

FBI surveillance of BP protest

Protest At BP Refinery In Indiana Credit: Thom Krystofiak

The case centered on three people who drove more than 5 hours from Iowa to participate in a protest at a BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana on the shores of Lake Michigan. That refinery is one of the largest in North America. The three friends — Jonas Magram, Thom Krystofiak and Inga Frick — are all in their 60s. They were participating in the Break Free event organized by, which drew more than 30,000 protesters around the world.

All three assumed they would be arrested in Indiana. None of them expected to be included in an FBI probe of domestic terrorism, however. “It is very, very troubling that those of us who are committed to protecting life on our planet through peaceful protest would be regarded as suspected enemies of the state.”

Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center, tells The Guardian that tracking the three protesters’ activities in Indiana by the FBI is concerning. “The fact that the FBI is tracking civil disobedience arrests and logging that information into FBI files is quite troubling,” he said. In the absence of intelligence indicating a planned act of violence, he says there was little justification for creating such a file on individual activists.

A review by the Inspector General for the US Department of Justice in 2010 found the FBI had improperly tracked activist groups such as Greenpeace and the Catholic Worker solely because they engaged in nonviolent protests. In 2015, another exposé by The Guardian revealed the FBI had once again violated its own rules by conducting an investigation into protesters opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline. As a result of that illegal action, one of the protesters later discovered he had been placed on a government “no fly” list.

Free Speech Is For Corporations, Not For Citizens

The Supreme Court in its infinite wisdom has declared corporations are entitled to the same right of free speech as American citizens under the US Constitution. That is curious, since the courts and law enforcement have all but abrogated the right of free speech for citizens in the aftermath of 9/11. America, which used to pride itself on its fiercely independent “spit in your eye” attitude, is now a place in which people are quaking in their boots, afraid of their own shadows, and suspicious of anyone who speaks out.

Security and incarceration have become big business with billions of dollars in profits to be made. The extent to which corporate America will go to suppress dissent was on full display at Standing Rock in North Dakota in 2016. Now that the alleged president has revived the Dakota Access pipeline, the companies that stand to profit from it are once again plotting a campaign of terror against protesters.

Weaponizing Anti-Protest Sentiment

Former FBI agent Mike German tells The Guardian the demonization of protest groups such as which engage in nonviolent direct action has helped fuel a militant police reaction to protesters. “It creates a cycle where the drum beat of warning about potential danger from these things leads to a certain kind of response that increases the police violence that occurs at these protests,” German says.

Lend Your Support

Bill McKibben is right. The United States government, which today is rolling back many environmental protections to make it easier for fossil fuel companies to drill on public lands and in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, is little more than an exponent of powerful corporations. Any pretense of protecting the citizens of the country from harm has been obliterated.

We wouldn’t know anything about this topic were it not for The Guardian pursuing its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. At a time when journalism is under attack as never before, please consider supporting The Guardian with a contribution. It’s simple to do and it would mean a great deal to all of us who rely on dedicated journalists to help shine a light on government malfeasance at the highest levels.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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