Wall Street has been in a state of high alert over reports that the next big document dump by the transparency extremists at WikiLeaks will concern a major U.S. bank. The stock price of Bank of America recently plunged for a while on speculation that it was the target.
Yet the bigger espionage story of recent days is one in which a major U.S. corporation is alleged to be the culprit rather than the victim. Greenpeace has just filed a racketeering complaint in DC federal court alleging that Dow Chemical and a smaller chemical company – a North American subsidiary of South Africa’s Sasol Ltd. – conspired with a leading public relations firm, Ketchum Inc., and a smaller pr outfit called Dezenhall Resources Ltd., to spy on Greenpeace.
This is said to have occurred from 1998 to 2000, a period when Greenpeace was campaigning against the dioxin risks created by manufacturing facilities such as those run by Dow and Sasol North America, which at the time was known as CONDEA Vista and was owned by the German energy giant RWE.
What’s the big deal, you might ask. Don’t environmental groups monitor big corporations all the time? In fact, the web page on which Greenpeace presents its materials about the lawsuit contains a prominent link to its archive of its corporate investigations. Shouldn’t companies be able to keep tabs on their opponents?
The difference between what Greenpeace does and what Dow et al. allegedly did is the small matter of adherence to the law. The defendants are accused not of using legitimate information-gathering techniques but rather of engaging in illegal activities such as trespass, invasion of privacy, conversion (a form of theft) of confidential documents – even misappropriation of Greenpeace’s “trade secrets.”
The complaint alleges these firms hired private security consultant Beckett Brown International (BBI; later known as S2I Corporation) to do their dirty work. The now defunct BBI, at the time run and staffed by former employees of the Secret Service and federal intelligence agencies, is said to have hired subcontractors who broke all kinds of laws to get at internal information about the operations, strategic plans and finances of Greenpeace and apparently a number of other groups such as Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety. Prominent environmental activists allied with Greenpeace, such as the legendary Lois Gibbs, are also said to have been spied on.
One of the most troubling allegations in the complaint is that BBI employed off-duty DC police officers to gain access to private premises (including locked areas in which Greenpeace kept its trash and recycling materials before they were collected) by showing their badges as if they were on official business. Greenpeace says it has recovered more than 1,000 pages of its internal documents – a fraction, it says, of what was taken. Greenpeace alleges that most of the papers came not from BBI incursions against its dumpsters but rather from direct break-ins at the group’s DC offices. Electronic surveillance is also charged.
BBI apparently did not have much of a reputation to protect, but the case is presumably a significant setback for Dezenhall Resources, which calls itself “the nation’s leading high-stakes communications consultancy.” Its principal Eric Dezenhall, a White House staffer during the Reagan Administration, has written several books (fiction and non-fiction) and frequently publishes commentaries in the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast. He helped Forbes compile its list of the year’s biggest corporate blunders.
Having worked for clients such as Michael Jackson and Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, Dezenhall fancies himself a pr gunslinger; others have called him the “pit bull” of public relations. Now that he is on the hot seat himself, Dezenhall seems less inclined to take the offensive. When the Washington Post contacted him about the Greenpeace suit, his response was “no comment.”
That was also the response of spokespeople for Dow Chemical, Sasol and Ketchum. Dow, of course, has been no stranger to controversy from its role as a producer of napalm and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War to its refusal to adequately compensate the victims of the Bhopal tragedy after taking over Union Carbide. Just think of all the juicy secrets that would come out if WikiLeaks ever got hold of its archives. But for now the Greenpeace suit is shedding light on an egregious case of corporate misconduct.