May 12 5:00 PM

FBI spied on Keystone protesters, worked with pipeline builder TransCanada

Eddy Radillo holds a Texas flag and a sign opposing the Transcanada Keystone Pipeline in February 2012 outside the Lamar County Courthouse in Paris, Texas.
Sam Craft / Paris News / AP

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is officially under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department, but sometimes they answer to a higher authority.

In this case, according to internal agency documents obtained by the Guardian and Earth Island Journal, that authority seems to be TransCanada, the North American energy company currently seeking United States government approval for the northern leg of its Keystone XL pipeline.

If completed, KXL, as it is often called, would transport crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries and ports in Houston, Texas.

As reported in the Guardian, the FBI broke its own rules investigating individuals and groups organizing to protest the Keystone project. Watchdogs say the pipeline poses a threat to the environment and water table if it should leak or rupture, and, even when functioning normally, will accelerate climate change by bringing more of the dirty, high-carbon tar sands oil to market.

TransCanada and other hydrocarbon enthusiasts say the pipeline will provide jobs (though just how many is in deep dispute) and increase domestic energy independence (even though the oil from Alberta is intended for the global petroleum market).

Oh, and among those other enthusiasts, it seems, is the FBI.

“Many of these extremists believe the debates over pollution, protection of wildlife, safety, and property rights have been overshadowed by the promise of jobs and cheaper oil prices,” said the FBI document cited by the Guardian. “The Keystone pipeline, as part of the oil and natural gas industry, is vital to the security and economy of the United States.”

(The merits of KXL project still await a final determination from the Obama administration, but it is good to know the FBI has already sorted that one out for us.)

According to the documents, for nearly two years, the Bureau conducted surveillance on individuals and groups — some with an inclination toward peaceful civil disobedience, but none with any record of violence or vandalism — organizing in Houston to protest Keystone. The FBI also “cultivated” at least one informant, though the report says it is unclear if “the source or sources were protesters-turned-informants, private investigators or hackers.”

The investigation proceeded without the expressly required approval of the top lawyer or senior Houston field agent. It did, however, seem to have the OK of the private corporation G-men seem to find more important.

FBI documents “suggest the Houston branch of the investigation was opened in early 2013, several months after a high-level strategy meeting between the agency and TransCanada, the company building the pipeline,” according to the Guardian.

From that point through June 2014, the documents show “the FBI collated inside-knowledge about forthcoming protests, documented the identities of individuals photographing oil-related infrastructure,” and “scrutinized police intelligence.” The Houston office of the FBI said, according to the Guardian report, that it would share “any pertinent intelligence regarding any threats” with TransCanada in advance of protests.

It did not, at least for a year, however, share the information with the Houston field office’s top lawyer, the chief division counsel (CDC), or with the special agent in charge (SAC). Both the CDC and SAC are required by the Bureau’s own internal rules to sign off on projects such as this KXL initiative after first assessing whether such domestic spying would have an “adverse impact on civil liberties and public confidence” if word of the program got out to the general public.

The FBI, responding to the Guardian report, admitted it did not “act properly under the law,” but insisted that, eventually, it got around to correcting the “non-compliance.” The feds said they felt justified in opening the investigation into KXL protesters “to secure and protect activities and entities which may be targeted for terrorism or espionage.”

Again, in this case, that would be TransCanada.

The Guardian revelations run strikingly counter to FBI statements from just a few months ago.

In February, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported that agents from the U.S. federal government had visited opponents of Canadian tar sands extraction and the Keystone XL pipeline, “knocking on doors, calling, texting [and] contacting family members.”

In one instance, a caller left a message for a member of the environmental group Wild Idaho Rising Tide asking her to phone the FBI.

In response to the Globe and Mail, the Bureau said it only investigates criminal acts and not political ones.

“The FBI has the authority to conduct an investigation when it has reasonable grounds to believe that an individual has engaged in criminal activity or is planning to do so,” FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich told the paper in February.

“This authority is based on the illegal activity, not on the individual’s political views,” Dietrich added.

Tuesday’s Guardian report suggests that FBI surveillance, such as the kind uncovered in Houston, was likely going on in several states. That fits well with February’s Globe and Mail findings, even if, in light of the newly released documents, the Bureau’s previous denials do not.

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