ON A FREEZING NIGHT in November, as police sprayed nonviolent Dakota Access Pipeline opponents with water hoses and rubber bullets, representatives of the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, North Dakota’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, and local law enforcement agencies frantically exchanged emails as they monitored the action in real time.
“Everyone watch a different live feed,” Bismarck police officer Lynn Wanner wrote less than 90 minutes after the protest began on the North Dakota Highway 1806 Backwater Bridge. By 4 a.m. on November 21, approximately 300 water protectors had been injured, some severely. Among them was 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky, who nearly lost her arm after being hit by what multiple sworn witnesses say was a police munition.
The emails exchanged that night highlight law enforcement efforts to control the narrative around the violent incident by spreading propaganda refuting Wilansky’s story, demonstrate the agencies’ heavy reliance on protesters’ social media feeds to monitor activities, and reveal for the first time the involvement of an FBI informant in defining the story police would promote.
The exchange is included in documents obtained by The Intercept that reveal the efforts of law enforcement and private security contractors to surveil Dakota Access Pipeline opponents between October and December 2016, as law enforcement’s outsized response to the demonstrators garnered growing nationwide attention and the number of water protectors living in anti-pipeline camps grew to roughly 10,000. Although the surveillance of anti-DAPL protesters was visible at the time — with helicopters circling overhead, contingents of security officials watching from the hills above camp, and a row of blinding lights illuminating the horizon along the pipeline’s right of way — intelligence collection largely took place in darkness.
In addition to the email communications, The Intercept is publishing 15 internal situation reports prepared by the private security firm TigerSwan for its client, Dakota Access parent company Energy Transfer Partners, as well as three PowerPoint presentations that TigerSwan shared with law enforcement. The documents are part of a larger set that includes more than 100 internal TigerSwan situation reports that were leaked to The Intercept by one of the company’s contractors and more than 1,000 Dakota Access-related law enforcement records obtained via public records request.
Last week, The Intercept published an exclusive report detailing TigerSwan’s sweeping enterprise, over nine months and across five states, which included surveillance of activists through aerial technology, social media monitoring, and direct infiltration, as well as attempts to shift public opinion through a counterinformation campaign. The company, made up largely of special operations military veterans, was formed during the war in Iraq and incorporated its counterinsurgency tactics into its effort to suppress an indigenous-led movement centered around protection of water.
Roughly eight hours prior to Sophia Wilansky’s injury, Bismarck police officer Lynn Wanner — who, records indicate, acted as a liaison between intelligence agencies and field officers throughout the anti-DAPL protests — alerted local, state, and federal law enforcement partners that an “FBI inside source” was “reporting propane tanks inside the camp rigged to explode.” Wanner’s email about the FBI informant echoes the story the Morton County Sheriff’s Department would later tell journalists about Wilansky’s injury.
“We probably should be ready for a massive media backlash tomorrow although we are in the right. 244 angry voicemails received so far,” wrote Ben Leingang, a North Dakota state official, at about 10 p.m. on November 20. By morning, images of Wilansky’s severely injured arm were circulating online.
TigerSwan fretted about the backlash, too. “Protesters are claiming over 100 injuries associated with the demonstration and will surely contort video of the event into anti-DAPL propaganda,” the security firm noted in its internal report that next morning.
As another day passed, U.S. Attorney’s Office National Security Intelligence Specialist Terry Van Horn sent an email to members of various federal agencies noting the FBI’s claim that “a source from the camp reported people were making IED’s from small Coleman type propane canisters.” Van Horn added that Wilansky “was witnessed throwing an IED while on the bridge, it detonated early and caused the below injuries (see graphic photos).”
Less than an hour later, Van Horn emailed to the thread the text of a Facebook post from the page Netizens for Progress and Justice. “This wasn’t caused by law enforcement, it was caused by dumbass ‘direct action’ protesters that think they are doing the right thing without any consideration for the safety and welfare of honest protesters nearby that are caught up in things,” the post read, going on to describe a theory of the injury that conflicted even with law enforcement’s propane tank theory.
“How can we get this story out?” replied Maj. Amber Balken, a public information officer for the National Guard, which was also involved in policing the protests. “This is a must report,” Balken added, suggesting the name of a local conservative blogger. Cecily Fong, a public information officer with the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, replied by promising to “get with” the blogger to circulate the article.
As The Intercept reported last week, Netizens for Progress and Justice also frequently published content produced on behalf of TigerSwan, including videos critical of pipeline opponents. Fong declined to comment on the exchange. Neither Van Horn nor Balken replied to a request for comment. The FBI declined to comment on any involvement it had in the protests, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
Ultimately, police promoted a story about the incident that echoed the claims of the FBI informant. On November 22, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department distributed press releases implying that Wilansky’s injury had been caused by a protester’s IED.
The Intercept reached Lauren Regan, an attorney representing Sophia Wilansky, and read the text of Van Horn’s email to her over the phone. “So much of it is totally factually incorrect,” Regan said.
“There has never been any evidence I have seen or heard of that gave any credibility to the allegation that propane tanks were being rigged as explosive devices,” continued Regan, who is a staff attorney at the Oregon-based Civil Liberties Defense Center. “To me, the timing of that revelation, in light of their having just basically blown a white woman’s arm off, always seemed extremely dubious.”
Sophia Wilansky’s father, Wayne Wilansky, agreed that “there’s not a shred of truth” to Van Horn’s account of Wilansky’s injury. “Obviously, disinformation is a major component of how they dealt with the protests,” he told The Intercept.
Surveillance Reports Paint Protesters as Desperate and Deviant
The internal situation reports from around the time of Wilansky’s injury contain their own examples of disinformation, invasive intelligence-gathering practices, and a fixation on the purported violence of DAPL’s opponents. At times, TigerSwan refers explicitly to informants and infiltrators. A document from October 3, for example, explains the ways the company monitored members of the American Indian Movement “mostly through social media” and “informant collection” in order to gauge the effectiveness of their security practices and “develop possible counter-measures moving forward.”
The documents, four of which were first published by Grist, include the names of dozens of pipeline opponents, labeling some as “persons of interest.” They describe meetings with law enforcement, including campus police at the University of Illinois and Lincoln Land College, as well as TigerSwan’s attempts to pressure officers into more aggressive action against protesters.
In the reports, TigerSwan declares success in accessing hard-to-find Facebook content, noting in an October 10 document, “The social media cell has harnessed a URL coding technique to discover hidden profiles and groups associated with the protesters.”
But TigerSwan’s intelligence was far from perfect and its interpretation of events was frequently off. For example, one document referenced a shell necklace that, TigerSwan speculated, marked members of the Mississippi Stand group who “have been arrested for the cause.” Mississippi Stand member Alex Cohen told the Intercept that the necklaces had nothing to do with arrests and were merely gifts given to a number of members by people indigenous to the area of one of their camps.
Overall, TigerSwan depicted the situation on the ground as volatile, at times painting the anti-pipeline camps as rife with drug use and “sexual deviance,” its inhabitants likely to stir violence. The security company found ways to interpret even the most benign social gatherings as potentially dangerous. One document previewed a casino concert featuring Jackson Browne and Bonnie Rait, fretting that it would draw “numerous outside influencers.” The document predicted, “Depending on the progress of drilling by then, the project could be adversely affected if not counter measured.”
After November 8, TigerSwan noted that “the election of President-elect Trump is likely to have a positive effect for the project overall and cooperation from the Federal level will likely improve after 20 JAN.” At the same time, TigerSwan commented on protesters’ post-election “despair,” writing on November 12 that “the DAPL protesters are inherently desperate and are not looking for a peaceful solution regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in turn we can expect this situation to become more volatile than it has ever become before.”
On November 13, TigerSwan again insisted on the likelihood of violence erupting. “Most locals are now carrying weapons to protect themselves, their families and their property,” that report notes. “They have also expressed frustration with what they see as a lack of action by law enforcement.” Around the same time, TigerSwan and law enforcement expressed concerns about the impact the death of a protester might have on the pipeline project. “The use of force or death of a protester or rioter will result in the immediate halt to DAPL operations, which will likely permanently halt the entire project,” the PowerPoint presentations TigerSwan shared with law enforcement warned.
Weeks later, the Obama administration would deny the pipeline company a key federal permit, putting construction on hold. In January, President Donald Trump revived the project. The pipeline began service to customers last Thursday.