A private security firm hired by the developer of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline conducted an aggressive, multifaceted operation against protesters that included a close working relationship with public law enforcement, documents obtained by an online magazine indicate.
Native American groups that opposed the pipeline say the report from The Intercept lends credence to their belief that law enforcement favored private industry in the monthslong dispute. But law enforcement and Texas-based pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners say their concern was everyone's safety.
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The Dakota Access pipeline will move North Dakota oil to a distribution point in Illinois. ETP plans to begin commercial operations Thursday. The company says the pipeline is safe, but opponents fear environmental harm.
Thousands of protesters last year descended on a camp set up in North Dakota near a section of the pipeline that runs under a Missouri River reservoir upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Pipeline opponents frequently clashed with police, and 761 arrests happened between August and February.
The documents show that ETP hired security firm TigerSwan, which was founded by retired military special forces members. The Intercept posted some of the documents it obtained online. It said it received more than 100 documents from a TigerSwan contractor and more than 1,000 through public records requests.
TigerSwan used military-style counter-terrorism measures against what it considered "an ideologically driven insurgency," the documents show. Its tactics included protest camp flyovers, video surveillance, social media monitoring, public relations — described in one document as "pro-DAPL propaganda" — and interactions with law enforcement. That included placing a liaison in the law enforcement operations center.
"Excellent comments from lead LEOs (Law Enforcement Officers) today regarding planning and communication from our personnel," says a TigerSwan report from Sept. 14.
The relationship was heavily criticized Tuesday by the Lakota People's Law Office.
"Rather than one-sidedly protecting the private interests of oil corporations, these state and federal law enforcement agencies should have been also protecting the constitutional rights of those who were being criminally conspired against, disrupted, and physically attacked by the oil company's private mercenary army of Middle East-based anti-terrorist specialists," Chief Counsel Daniel Sheehan said in a statement.
Indigenous Environmental Network organizer Dallas Goldtooth said in a statement that "police and security were essentially given permission to carry out war-like tactics" on protesters.
One particularly violent clash happened in late November, when protesters trying to push past a blocked highway bridge were turned back by authorities using tear gas, rubber bullets and water sprays. Police said protesters were throwing rocks, asphalt and water bottles at officers.
The Morton County Sheriff's Office, which spearheaded the response to the protests, said its communications with TigerSwan security weren't unusual and "gave law enforcement situational awareness in order to monitor and respond to illegal protest activity."
ETP said in a statement that "the safety of our employees and the communities in which we live and work is our top priority. In order to ensure that we do have security plans in place, we do communicate with law enforcement agencies as appropriate."
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