An activist was placed on a US government watchlist for domestic flights after being swept up in an FBI investigation into protests of the Keystone XL pipeline, linking a breach of intelligence protocol with accounts of continued tracking that environmentalists fear could follow them for life.
Twenty-five-year-old Bradley Stroot is one of several campaigners to go public, after the Guardian revealed an FBI investigation that labeled them “environmental extremists” , with new allegations of a continued crackdown. From an hours-long detention at the US border to a home visit by a terrorism task force and an encounter with police searching for bombs, the activists say law enforcement has tracked them from a peaceful Texas protest of the highly contentious oil project in 2012 and 2013 to the tony suburbs of Indianapolis as recently as the end of last year.
Stroot told the Guardian in an interview that when he flew back to Texas to visit a friend last December, he learned that he was on a watchlist – known as a “Secondary Security Screening Selection” – and was subjected to more invasive airport security measures.
The FBI’s investigation into anti-Keystone activists was closed in June 2014 due to a lack of credible intelligence regarding threats to the pipeline and extremist activity.
According to internal agency documents obtained by the Guardian and Earth Island Journal, it was discovered in August 2013 that the FBI’s investigation had been opened without proper approval from the chief legal counsel of the agency’s Houston division and a senior agent, resulting in a report of “substantial non-compliance” with rules set out by the US justice department.
But before the internal violations were discovered, information on Stroot and several other activists was included in FBI files. Now, interviews with Stroot, who was held up at Chicago’s O’Hare airport six months after the investigation was closed, and other protesters indicate that they are still being monitored by law enforcement.
Stroot and two other people involved in the protests were described in the files as having separate, larger “Subject” files in the FBI’s Guardian Threat Tracking System, a repository for suspicious activity reports and counterterrorism threat assessments that can be searched by all FBI employees.
Hugh Handeyside, an attorney with the ACLU in New York, said the government’s suspicious activity reporting program is often tied to placement on a watchlist.
“Both label people as suspicious according to low standards that inevitably include innocent conduct,” he said. “And this case shows that the two may be linked.”
According to a long-withheld US watchlist guidance document published last year by the Intercept , people who do not meet the criteria for inclusion on the no-fly list but who are associated with “terrorist activity” may be placed on a selectee list like the one Bradley Stroot found himself on. Some 16,000 people – 1,200 of them US citizens – have been identified as so called “selectees” who must undergo heightened screenings at border crossings or airports.
From photos at the pipeline to a pat-down at the airport
On 13 December 2014, Stroot said, he prepared to board a flight from Chicago to Dallas to see an old friend – his first air travel since his 10-month involvement in a campaign in the Houston area against the proposed Keystone project.
While in Texas the first time, he had been arrested once for trespassing after taking part in a widely publicized occupation of part of the pipeline route that included a “tree village”.
And on 15 November 2012, Stroot and two other activists were stopped by the Houston police department while taking photos of the Valero refinery, one of the endpoints for tar sands oil. Although they were not charged with any crime, details of the incident ended up in an FBI file – part of more than 80 pages of internal FBI documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request – that described the activists as “suspicious individuals”. Four days later, the police officers met with members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force to discuss the incident.
The encounter with the Houston police left Stroot somewhat shaken but determined to continue protesting. He says he had flown once to Europe – before the Keystone campaign began in Texas in 2012 – and had no issues.
But when he printed his American Airlines plane ticket in December, he noticed four S’s in large black letters in the top right corner. So-called “Secondary Security Screening Selection” helps Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security officers single out travelers, with no explanation, for heightened screening at airports.
When Stroot arrived at Chicago O’Hare, he said, he was subjected to heightened security screening – removed from the main passenger line and taken to a separate holding area where another airline security official was waiting. His bags, Stroot alleged, were carefully searched and he was subjected to a more invasive pat-down. He said the same thing happened on his return flight to Chicago.
“They pull you out of line, swab down all of your shit with tongue depressor-like things, and check for bomb-making materials,” Stroot said.
But there were signs that Stroot had become a subject of interest to law enforcement even before he learned he was on a watchlist.
One night in spring 2013, just a few months after he had returned home to Indiana from Texas, Stroot said he was helping out at a makeshift homeless shelter in Bloomington, sleeping in a friend’s truck, when a police officer knocked on the window and asked for identification.
When the officer returned from running his ID, Stroot claims that he was aggressively questioned and that the officer asked if he could look in the truck, which had an open cab. “You could see there was nothing in it,” Stroot said.
After what he recalls as minutes more of questioning, Stroot said the officer finally asked if he had “any bomb-making materials”.
From video in the trees to detention at the border – and at home
Stroot is not the only anti-Keystone XL activist who has been targeted since the Texas protest campaign and parallel FBI investigation.
Elizabeth Arce, a 27-year-old independent journalist, traveled to Texas with a friend in October 2012 to help document the tree sit-in that ended in Stroot’s arrest. After spending a week in the trees live-streaming video of the protest, she said, they ran out of batteries and descended, hoping that as journalists they might avoid arrest from the police waiting underfoot.
I think the storyline of TransCanada and authorities communicating further than we think is plausible
Arce and her friend, Lorenzo Serna, were arrested for trespassing but all the charges were dropped.
In April 2013, Arce was on her way to Canada for an Earth Day event hosted by an indigenous group in Ontario. At the border crossing in Minnesota, Arce said, Canadian border agents asked her about the arrest in Texas, searched her car and eventually let her pass.
But this past August, Arce said she, Serna and another friend were driving to Canada to document the aftermath of the Mount Polley mine disaster in British Columbia and were denied entry.
At the crossing in Sweetgrass, Montana, Arce said agents at the border asked her detailed questions about her arrest in Texas. They searched the car for “hours”, she said, going through every piece of luggage and scrap of paper, even referring to her trombone as a “noisemaker”. After being detained for five hours, she said she and her friends were told that they could not cross into Canada because, she remembered an agent telling her, they “seemed like protesters”.
In the FBI files, the agency’s Houston office said it would share “any pertinent intelligence regarding any threats” with TransCanada, the Canadian oil giant that has been lobbying for years to oversee the transport of tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf coast. The project is still awaiting approval from the Obama administration.
“I think the storyline of TransCanada and authorities communicating further than we think is plausible,” Arce said.
(In a statement, TransCanada said the company does not “direct law enforcement” but that “law enforcement officials have asked us on a number of occasions about our experience along the Gulf Coast Pipeline so they can determine what they may expect when Keystone XL construction begins”.)
Andrew Neef, a 31-year-old data archivist from Minnesota, also spent time in Texas in 2012 and 2013. He was part of a mass action on 7 January 2013, at the Houston offices of TransCanada, and was arrested for trespassing along with another activist, Alec Johnson. Because he did not have a permanent address at the time and was not living in Texas, Neef entered his parents’ address on the police report. Neef and Johnson are both referred to in the FBI files obtained by the Guardian, which detail that the FBI had advance knowledge of the TransCanada sit-in and debriefed an informant on the event after it happened.
About a month after the Houston arrest, Neef said his parents were visited by members of the Indiana division of the FBI’s joint terrorism task force at their home in Carmel, an upscale Indianapolis suburb.
According to Neef, who also works as an independent-media journalist, the agents asked his parents several questions about the people he knew, whom he was working with, and where his funding came from. They also wanted to know, Neef said, if he was involved in anti-fracking campaigns.
“They wanted me to contact them,” Neef said, “and probably become some kind of snitch.”
(The FBI’s Houston field office did not respond to a detailed list of questions for this article.)
More than a year later, the FBI investigation into anti-Keystone pipeline campaigners in Texas was formally closed due to a “lack of reporting and/or extremist activity”. But the FBI retains data on individuals even if the purported threat turns out to be non-existent.
For young activists like Bradley Stroot, the stigma of being on a government watchlist can last for years. Stroot said he was resigned to the “new reality” that he may be on the list for “the rest of my life or a very long period”.
Once an individual has been placed on the selective screening watchlist, there is very little he or she can do to get removed from it, said Handeyside of the ACLU, or even find out why he or she was put on it in the first place.
“There’s no due process for these people,” he said.
- Adam Federman is a contributing editor of Earth Island Journal .
Are you an anti-Keystone activist? Do you suspect you may have been monitored by the FBI? Contact: [email protected]