"I was paid to betray protestors" (27/5/2007)

NOTE: Not GM stuff, but about how the New Zealand govt (via Solid Energy, a state owned enterprise) is funding spying on environmental activists.

Save Happy Valley Coalition is a group opposed to coal mining, especially of a pristine natural forest area called Happy Valley, which just happens to be sitting on a lot of coal.

This report's by the journalist who previously exposed an NZ government cover up involving GM contaminated sweet corn (see his book Seeds of Distrust).

According to Hager, Happy Valley is far from a one-off: "private investigators are being used widely" for "a scale of corporate spying against political groups never before seen in New Zealand."


'I was paid to betray protesters'
Sunday Star Times, 27 May 2007

An Auckland private investigation firm is paying agents to infiltrate and spy on environmental, peace and anti-vivisection groups for its clients, including state-owned enterprise Solid Energy.

Finding the enemy within

Private investigators acting for a state-owned enterprise have hired spies to infiltrate and undermine protest groups in what's believed to be a New Zealand first. Nicky Hager investigates.

Ryan is the kind of volunteer community groups dream of: reliable, keen and always offering to help when any jobs need to be done. He came to be relied upon and trusted within the Christchurch Save Happy Valley group - young environmentalists opposing plans for a large government-run open-cast coal mine on the West Coast.

Except, as he has admitted to the Sunday Star-Times, he isn't a volunteer. As he put up posters, sat at a stall outside Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, hosted planning meetings at his house and took part in protests, he was working for a private investigation firm gathering information on the group. He has been working on behalf of the state-owned coal mining company Solid Energy and his job is to help undermine the environmental campaign.

Somali is the same. Reliable, friendly and well-liked, she has been a central member of two Wellington political groups during the past two years - one that protests against animal vivisection and battery hens, the other opposed to the arms trade. She regularly volunteers to take the minutes at meetings. Although she emphatically denies it, our investigation has found compelling evidence that she, like Ryan, has been working for Auckland private investigators Thompson & Clark Investigations Ltd.

Last year a parliamentary committee formally criticised the state power company Mighty River Power for hiring Thompson & Clark for unspecified activities against Greenpeace. It turns out this was the tip of an iceberg. The private investigators are being used widely, a scale of corporate spying against political groups never before seen in New Zealand.

Auckland Council for Civil Liberties president Barry Wilson describes it as repellent. "These are young people trying to act in the public good on issues like climate change. They have a basic right in a democracy to do this without interference.

"In the same way as it is undesirable to plant corporate spies in a board room, it is equally undesirable to plant corporate spies in community groups," he said. "Arguably, it it is even more repellent and unethical because the corporates have so much greater resources at their disposal to ward off people challenging them."

Thompson & Clark describes itself as New Zealand's leading corporate intelligence agency. It is part of a worldwide trend for companies to use the techniques of police and intelligence services against groups that oppose their activities. Thompson & Clark's public face is a website that offers clients "highly specialised skills" and "on-call tactical support, complemented by teams of covert surveillance operatives and a consultant security-guard force".

An unseen part of the website - containing key words to attract businesses searching the internet for private investigators - lists "covert physical and electronic surveillance", "real-time intelligence", "political activism" and "protesters" as specialities.

The agency has specialised in working for controversial companies since forming in 2003 as "security providers to the biotech industry". It is secretive, keeping even its office location secret. Gavin Clark, who oversees the students undercover, is a former police officer, armed offender's squad member and nationally competitive kayaker.

Ryan began the spying in October 2006, when he attended a Save Happy Valley public meeting in Christchurch and said he was keen to get involved. A week later he joined his first protest action, outside Solid Energy's Christchurch headquarters. From then on he attended most activities, including giving group members rides to the West Coast and helping to plan protests. Since March this year, he has hosted regular action meetings and pot-luck dinners at his home. At a meeting at his home on March 13, he advocated more actions where people would get arrested, assuring the group they could raise the money for court fines.

He played along as part of the group. Here he is writing to the Save Happy Valley spokesperson, Frances Mountier, about a planned protest: "Hey bud, Ryan here, how u b? Now what's up for the weekend? Keen 2 catch up. Hope ur well." At a group meeting just a week ago he was pushing Mountier to put him on to an email network providing access to communications of the group's co-ordinators around the country.

When Ryan was questioned by the Star-Times on Thursday, he initially denied the spying. After being presented with evidence, he said: "Ah bud, looks like my cover's blown."

Ryan said he was approached by Clark through a mutual friend. Clark took him to a Chinese restaurant in Christchurch and said: "I hear you're going to uni next year, want extra money?"

The pay was helpful for a student, but dirt cheap for the private investigators - only $400 a month, plus extra for trips to the West Coast.

"It's capitalism at its worst," Ryan said, adding he was referring to himself. "I was paid to hike into the valley. It seems pretty shallow now."

The irony was that he came to believe genuinely in what the group strove for.

Ryan confirmed that the client for the spying is the state-owned coal company, Solid Energy. He provided a monthly report on meetings and group plans plus received questions the company wanted answered by email from Clark. For instance, Solid Energy has taken legal action against some Save Happy Valley members over a publication criticising its environmental record. Ryan said Solid Energy requested and was provided with information about the group's legal discussions and strategies.

Solid Energy's first known use of Thompson & Clark was publicised in the Star-Times in April last year. Save Happy Valley supporters camping at the site of the planned Cypress open-cast coal mine north of Westport discovered two men monitoring their camp from a hiding place on a neighbouring ridge.

Solid Energy spokesperson Vicki Blyth said the men didn't work for Solid Energy, then declined to answer questions about Thompson & Clark because "the release of such information would unreasonably compromise our commercial position".

Later that year, the surveillance was intensified. Visitors to the West Coast protest camp discovered a hidden digital video camera, 100 metres of cable and electronic recording equipment being used to monitor a public access road to the camp. This was the same month that Thompson & Clark employed Ryan to infiltrate the group. His spying continued until this past week.

The infiltration of the groups came to light by chance, after a computer fault at the Thompson & Clark offices in Auckland. The company had set up an automated system for collecting the internal emails sent between key members of Save Happy Valley and the other groups. The spies gave their email user names and passwords to the private detective firm, which used a computer programme called POPCon to copy all the group's communications straight to Clark's computer. Clark could sit at his desk and read the groups' internal communications before most members had.

But computers go wrong. On Tuesday, April 3, Clark's computer had a fault. For a while it returned all incoming emails to their original senders. The returned emails were addressed from postmaster@ tcil. co.nz (Thompson & Clark) and announced that "delivery to the following recipients failed: [email protected]."

Inquiries revealed the political groups that received returned mail from Clark that day. The technical "header" information at the top of the returned emails allowed the infiltrators (to whom the emails had been addressed) to be identified.

Solid Energy's use of the private detective firm against its critics is reminiscent of another state-owned enterprise - Timberlands West Coast, in the 1990s. Rather than leaving politics to the government, the state-owned company spent large sums of public money fighting its environmental critics. This included its PR company, Shandwick, paying $50 an hour to a student (now a business journalist) to attend and report on environmental meetings. But the spying on Solid Energy's critics has taken the intrusion to a new level. The Timberlands "spy" just sat at the back of public meetings. Ryan and Somali are central and trusted members of their groups.

When told about the spying, Mountier said it was "shocking that Solid Energy would use such devious and underhand tactics".

"It's also pretty shocking for our group being able to work together. Obviously, everyone comes to such a campaign out of passion or dedication to the cause. That is undermined when someone is sitting in the room pretending to be a part of it and taking part in discussions on strategy and media and campaigning and fundraising when in fact they are hired by people who want to stop us."

She said it was particularly disgraceful for a government-owned company to be doing this.

When Solid Energy's use of private detectives was first publicised last year, Solid Energy CEO Don Elder would say only that Thompson & Clark was providing "advice on security matters". He said Solid Energy had spent a lot of money dealing with protests. Minimising this was "sensible business practice". However a protest action three weeks ago -when two Save Happy Valley members chained themselves in front of a coal train - illustrates that the aim of the spying is not to minimise costs but to minimise the political effect of its environmental opponents.

Three days before the protest, seemingly out of the blue, Elder gained national media attention saying that delays caused by environmental work (such as removing native snails from mine sites) and protests had been costing the company millions of dollars. When the protest occurred, he stayed away from issues of coal use and climate change and responded that the group was less concerned with protecting the environment and more concerned with disrupting Solid Energy and costing it money.

The protesters "don't give a second thought about tying up the time and resources of the emergency services as well as the courts", he said. Christchurch police, fire service and railway staff chimed in with this line.

All this sounds understandable until we know that Solid Energy knew the time and place of the protest in advance and did nothing to stop it.

Ryan was being paid by Solid Energy while he was intimately involved in planning the protest, served as a lookout on the day and then joined in the protest, loudly jeering at the police. Therefore any cost and disruption from the protest, which Elder made the focus of his response, had been avoidable. It appears the primary goal of the spying is to help Solid Energy's political campaign to continue and increase coal mining at a time when the world is sensitive about climate change.

Approached by the Star-Times, Elder refused to confirm anything in this story but said: "What do I think about it? So what? If Thompson & Clark had got someone to do the things you've said, then I would say good on them."

He would "continue to expect that sort of service from firms we engage. "It's my job to be informed about my business.

"My sources of that information, who informs me, how they inform me only has one criterion and that is that they act legally, ethically and morally, and I'm absolutely comfortable that all the information that comes from Thompson & Clark meets those criteria."

Did he regard it as ethical for people to act under false pretences and deceive those they're pretending to work with? He said it was "a lot more ethical" than Save Happy Valley's activities.

"We act more ethically than the people who would bring about destruction to our business. I'm totally comfortable with that including the things you're suggesting may have happened, if in fact they have happened and I'm not confirming that."

But a spokesman for Minister of State-owned Enterprises Trevor Mallard, told the Sunday Star-Times the minister would discuss the matter with Solid Energy chairman John Palmer.

Asked whether the government thought it acceptable for a state-owned company to pay people to infiltrate political organisations, the spokesman said Mallard was concerned if an SOE had indirectly hired someone to infiltrate a protest group and would discuss it with the chairman.

Information gathered suggests Somali began work for Thompson & Clark two years ago, in June 2005. She attended a fundraising dinner in a church hall run by the Wellington Animal Rights Network and introduced herself to the organisers. It's clear why she arrived then. A week later there were three days of protest activities about vivisection and cruelty to animals outside the ANZCCART conference (Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching). Somali attended all the protest events and in early July 2005, attended her first meeting of the group.

The Wellington Animal Rights Network is a small voluntary group and soon Somali was one of the core members. She has taken part in most of its activities since.

One time, when members of the group travelled to another ANZCCART conference in Canberra, she happened to be going to a friend's 21st in Canberra and attended all the group's activities.

In retrospect, committee member Mark Eden recalled that whatever was happening, she would always ask for precise details, dates and times. When she was on holiday in Australia in late 2005, she texted Eden daily asking for updates on the time and date of a planned protest on conditions in pig farms.

Small community groups are built on shared effort and trust. When he heard evidence suggesting Somali had been reporting to their opponents, Eden expressed shock at the betrayal.

"She knows us all. She's been to dinner at our house and we treated her like a friend. I felt sick."

Looking back he said she was always friendly but there was never any sign of real passion about the issues.

In August 2006 Somali began attending meetings of the peace group, Peace Action Wellington. Again she became a helpful, liked member of the group as it prepared for protests about an arms industry conference in Wellington. She attended group meetings leading up to the conference. She was the group's legal observer during the protests. She was still attending meetings last week. Questioned by the Star-Times this past week, she denied any links to Thompson & Clark.

It is not known who is paying Thompson & Clark to spy on the peace and animal rights groups.

An organisation with an interest in Peace Action Wellington are the arms manufacturers that gather at arms industry conferences. Peace group spokesperson Valerie Morse said, "If it's the weapons manufacturers, this just shows what sort of people they are. It would be because they're worried about us exposing their war business to the New Zealand public."

With the anti-vivisection group, one organisation with an interest in the intelligence is the biotech industry lobby group, NZbio, which names Thompson & Clark Investigations as a "NZbio partner" in its publications.

NZbio CEO Brian Ward confirmed they hire Thompson & Clark for security around their annual conferences, but not the rest of the year. He had seen some reports they had done on protest groups but said they do not pay for these nor have any idea of the mechanics of the information collection. It therefore seems likely that Thompson & Clark conducts its animal rights monitoring to build up intelligence for a range of clients.

Barry Wilson says there are serious issues about the legitimacy of private investigators spying on political groups in a democratic society. He said the government is overhauling the private investigators legislation and should make actions like these illegal. He said the Thompson & Clark cases should be investigated by the privacy commissioner.

Approached by the Star-Times, Clark said the spying was nothing to do with Thompson & Clark. He said he didn't know Ryan or Somali.

"It's a pretty outrageous allegation. I don't know what you're talking about. I have no idea."

The next day, after Ryan had admitted working for him, Clark provided a written statement saying: "It is standard security industry policy not to discuss any matters related to work for clients. We therefore cannot assist any further with the matters the Sunday Star-Times has raised with us."

He said Thompson & Clark was a "reputable professional security firm" and they "adhere to the Private Investigators and Security Guards Act in all our work". Section 34 of the act states the company is not permitted to hire Ryan and Somali for private investigator duties unless they hold certificates of approval. They do not.

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