Government Surveillance of Environmental Activists | WYPR

Government Surveillance of Environmental Activists

Sep 16, 2014

Over the last year, the news has been full of stories about U.S. government surveillance of its own civilians.  Among those worried about the government’s increased power to track and record the communications of people in the iPhone age are some environmental activists who in the past have been wrongly labeled "ecoterrorists" in government databases.


“I am more concerned about surveillance than I’ve ever been," said Mike Tidwell (shown in picture), Founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "I am deeply concerned about NSA surveillance of Americans.”

Tidwell has a reason to worry.   From 2005 to 2008, the Maryland State Police listed Tidwell and two of his fellow climate activists in a database of suspected terrorists.  

Their crime?  According to police records, they were guilty of “aggressive protesting.” They held up signs reading, “What about Global Warming?” outside a 2005 press conference by former Governor Bob Ehrlich. As the governor walked by, Tidwell’s colleague Josh Tulkin shouted, “Governor Ehrlich, What about Carbon?“

When Tulkin tried to enter the press conference, he was grabbed by state police and detained for questioning until after the event was  over.  Even though his name was eventually – three years later – removed from the terrorist list, Tulkin complained that the terms “terrorist” and “eco-terrorist” are still used too casually by police and politicians, often with no real evidence But causing real harm.

“That’s what’s so terrifying –  if there’s ISIS on one hand, and then there’s Josh Tulkin, suspected eco-terrorist, on the other hand,' said Tulkin.  "One group is beheading people. The other is asking about global warming.  This should not be part of a common language.”

Greg Shipley, spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said police changed their surveillance policies in 2008 after an investigation ordered by Governor Martin O’Malley. The investigation revealed undercover police infiltration of the meetings of peaceful activists, many of them in anti-war and anti-death-penalty organizations.  The examination also found an improper listing of 53 innocent people as suspected terrorists.

Shipley said police no longer spy on nonviolent organizations.

“There is no monitoring going on of groups simply engaged in exercising their first amendment rights," Shipley said. "We are just not engaged in that. If there is a criminal investigation on going – we do conduct surveillance of drug activities, but there is a very obvious nexus to criminal activity that is occurring.   But we are not infiltrating groups sitting around talking about the issues of the day.”

Mike Tidwell, however, is not so sure the problem is completely resolved. Even though Maryland state police told him they removed his name from the state’s terrorist watch list, it is unclear if they also sent the correction to national law enforcement authorities.

Whenever Tidwell flies into the U.S., he says he is still is pulled aside and examined or questioned – which never happened before he was wrongly put on suspected terrorist list.

Will Potter is an author who investigated government spying on green organizations for his book, called “Green is the New Red.” 

“In part of my research, I went through every database available from FBI and homeland security to examine how they classify crime as terrorism," Potter said. "And what I found is that they repeatedly and consistently omit the crimes of right wing groups, including murder, sending anthrax through the mail, creating weapons of mass destruction, while creating and exaggerating the crimes of environmental and animal rights activists, which are nothing like that."

Potter’s conclusion was that eco-terrorism is a myth, because terrorism by definition requires violence against people, which does not happen with environmental causes. 

What is not a myth, however, is government surveillance and sometimes harassment of activists who threaten real social and economic change.