What were undercover agents doing at an anti-fracking protest in Colorado?
They were there, but they weren’t spying, police say
Local and federal undercover law enforcement agents were assigned to monitor an anti-fracking demonstration in Lakewood this spring, according to emails and a report in The Intercept published this week.
The Lakewood Police department, however, says its officers didn’t infiltrate anti-fracking groups and says the agency treated the demonstration just as it would if it were a protest against abortion or any other topic.
For a July 19 story, Intercept reporter Lee Fang and writer Steve Horn of DeSmogBlog relied on emails they obtained from the Lakewood police department, emails that make reference to “U/C’s” at the event — code for what a Lakewood police spokesman confirmed to The Independent stands for “undercover.”
From The Intercept:
The emails, which were obtained through an open records act request, show that the Lakewood Police Department collected details about the protest from undercover officers as the event was being planned. During the auction, both local law enforcement and federal agents went undercover among the protesters.
The emails further show that police monitored Keep it in the Ground participating groups such as 350.org, Break Free Movement, Rainforest Action Network and WildEarth Guardians, while relying upon intelligence gathered by Anadarko, one of the largest oil and gas producers in the region.
In one email, someone whose name is redacted writes in response to an email about the protest from an officer, “Can I make a protester sign?” That officer, whose name is not redacted, replies, “heck yeah, they [may] issue you one.”
Steve Davis, a spokesman for the Lakewood Police Department, says he spoke with the author of the email who told him it was sent in jest.
“That was a joke,” Davis says.
In The Intercept’s document cloud of 300 emails, one document states that the Lakewood police redacted the names of undercover officers when responding to the records request.
Lakewood police say while they did have undercover officers in plain clothes at the demonstration, they did not infiltrate the anti-fracking protest or spy on protesters.
Emails published by The Intercept show law enforcement strategizing about the timing and logistics of covering the protest, delineating duties and handling overtime.
The emails also show law enforcement gathered information and briefed officers on the groups involved prior to the event. In one email, someone whose name is redacted writes, “fyi. 350 Colorado sent me the locations of the protests.” 350 Colorado is an anti-fracking group. Another email states officials from the federal Bureau of Land Management “apparently have been tracking these groups and have more information on them.”
That’s not out of the ordinary for how Lakewood law enforcement handles other kinds of protests, Davis, the police spokesman says.
“It was not an undercover operation,” he told The Colorado Independent. “We were merely there just to make sure it stayed peaceful. … It was not like we sent undercover people in there expecting to find anything.”
Bill Blackburn, a sergeant who oversaw traffic issues at the May 12 protest at Lakewood’s Holiday Inn, told The Independent he was unaware of any undercover agents infiltrating the demonstration. He said other than uniformed and plain clothes officers at the event, they had an officer on a computer monitoring social media accounts to track the demonstration and scout for potential incidents.
“There was no real spying going on,” Blackburn said.
The police also relied on information about the groups from documents provided by an oil and gas company, according to the Lakewood police emails. Davis didn’t have much to say about that when asked if it was out of the ordinary.
“I don’t know that they had any kind of connection there,” he says about the police force and the private company.
Blackburn, the sergeant, says the police didn’t solicit information from the oil and gas company, but a former city employee who is now a private public relations consultant passed it along to the police.
“We don’t have a dog in this fight. We’re interested in public safety,” Blackburn said. “We’re not interested in getting involved in an issue that’s between the federal government and a special interest group.”
Lakewood police officials said they couldn’t speak to whether the federal Bureau of Land Management had undercover agents involved in the protest.
A regional state chief ranger for the federal Bureau of Land Management did not respond to a voicemail. The Bureau of Land Management reimbursed the Lakewood police department for its help covering the event.
Federal agents have overstepped in the past when dealing with environmental groups.
In 2013, the FBI broke its own guidelines when when it “investigated environmental advocates who opposed the Keystone XL pipeline,” according to The New York Times.
But it was a potential relationship between local law enforcement and the oil and gas industry in Colorado that was what initially piqued the interest of DeSmogBlog’s Steve Horn, one of the writers on The Intercept story. He told The Independent that he became curious after hearing an oil and gas industry representative praise the Lakewood Police Department’s handling of the May protest.
‘Evolution’ to civil disobedience
On May 12, the day of the demonstration, about 300 protesters showed up at a Holiday Inn in Lakewood, just outside Denver, where the federal Bureau of Land Management was auctioning off public land leases to private oil and gas companies.
Following the protest, Boulder Weekly’s Joel Dyer reported how community-rights activists in Colorado have been turning to civil disobedience after a ruling by the state Supreme Court that said local communities in Colorado do not have the ability to ban fracking. Voters in two Colorado municipalities had voted in local elections to ban the use of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in their communities, but the oil and gas industry sued, which led to the May ruling by the state’s highest court.
Shortly after the ruling, two separate actions in Colorado “confirmed this evolution” to civil disobedience in the movement, Dyer wrote. One was at Colorado’s largest drilling operation near an elementary school in Thornton. The other was the Bureau of Land Management lease auction in Lakewood.
In his May 19 story, Dyer noted that the Lakewood demonstration at the Holiday Inn “received a small amount of press coverage.”
As Boulder Weekly reports on a potential shift in the Colorado anti-fracking efforts, The Intercept reports a law enforcement response that’s “beginning to take a more aggressive stance toward the Keep it in the Ground movement.”
Davis of the Lakewood police department says officers were looking out for civil disobedience at the protest, but things went smoothly and police made no arrests that day.
Karen Crummy, a spokeswoman for Protect Colorado, a group that fights efforts to ban fracking, said she hadn’t read the Intercept story. A spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association didn’t return a call or email.
Micah Parkin, the director of environmental group 350 Colorado, is disturbed at the idea of undercover agents at fracking protests.
“It’s shameful to see public agencies, taxpayer money and our public lands being used to prop up fossil fuel industries, while those of us who are working to protect our land, water, air and climate are being considered ‘insurgents,’” Parkin told The Independent.
She says the May event in Lakewood had too many participants to notice the difference between legitimate protesters and alleged spies. But she said at earlier demonstrations, she felt they were there.
At one protest against a Bureau of Land Management lease sale in February, for example, she says “there was a guy with an earpiece, and nobody really knew who he was.”
And while preparing for the May demonstration, organizers came across people in parked cars on side roads that would normally be deserted, she said.
“At first we didn’t believe it,” Parkin said of the possibility that the group was being watched. “Then it became really obvious.”
Parkin says she wouldn’t be surprised if oil and gas companies were keeping tabs on activist groups. “We know that they have the money and they want to protect their assets,” she says. “We don’t put any such tactics past them.”
Kelsey Ray contributed to this story
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