FROM NORTH DAKOTA TO PUERTO RICO, CONTROVERSIAL SECURITY FIRM PROFITS FROM OIL PROTESTS AND NATURAL DISASTERS
TigerSwan, the mercenary security firm that worked to suppress the NoDAPL movement, is promoting its disaster response efforts in Houston and Puerto Rico.
APEX, North Carolina (The Intercept) – TIGERSWAN, THE MERCENARY security company best known for its efforts to suppress indigenous-led resistance to the Dakota Access oil pipeline, is stepping up its pursuit of profits in areas hit by climate change-driven natural disaster.
Three blog posts published on TigerSwan’s website in February describe the firm’s response efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina in 2016. TigerSwan, according to the posts, assisted National Guard members in Houston and emergency managers in North Carolina by providing them with access to its GuardianAngel system for monitoring the movement of individuals and sensitive shipments. In Puerto Rico, the company’s work included tracking down the employees of an unnamed client.
At Standing Rock, TigerSwan operatives hired by the pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners used militaristic tactics to disrupt the massive opposition to the project, sending infiltrators into resistance camps, conducting aerial surveillance, and engaging in propaganda efforts. The private security firm routinely coordinated with law enforcement, sharing equipment and intelligence and assisting with arrests. Although preventing water pollution was the Standing Rock movement’s rallying call, many of its organizers were also climate activists; the earliest DAPL opponents were veterans of the anti-Keystone XL pipeline movement, which centered on the harmful climate effects of carbon-intensive tar sands oil.
In essence, TigerSwan has gone from suppressing a movement seeking to slow climate change to marketing itself as a company that can help clients survive climate change’s most severe consequences.
Natural disasters have long been a boon for private security firms. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as Jeremy Scahill reported for The Nation, guards working for the notorious mercenary firm Blackwater, hired to provide security for Federal Emergency Management Agency reconstruction projects, patrolled the streets of New Orleans carrying automatic rifles. Other security companies were brought in to guard hotel chains and private homes. As one Blackwater mercenary told Scahill, “This is a trend. You’re going to see a lot more guys like us in these situations.”
Pamela Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents anti-pipeline groups in Louisiana seeking to keep TigerSwan from operating in the state, said that large-scale natural disasters tend to create a vacuum of accountability as private security, military, and police forces descend on ravaged communities. “It raises a lot of concerns when you have this growing patchwork of private and state interests that are basically executing law enforcement and security functions in these settings,” said Spees.
“Add to that concerns about a company like TigerSwan that was operating in the way it did in North Dakota and coming in with these extremist takes on protesters that served to amplify and inflame the law enforcement response,” she added, referring to internal TigerSwan reports that compared the anti-pipeline movement to a “jihadist insurgency.” “Now it’s holding itself out as some savior that can go in and provide these security services in a situation where there’s extreme vulnerability.”
Indeed, TigerSwan predicts a future in which its disaster response services will become increasingly necessary.
In a February 1 post, TigerSwan included a map created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the key federal agencies that monitors the changing climate, displaying “billion-dollar weather and climate disasters” across the U.S. last year.
“The frequency and cost of 2017’s natural disasters should give all Americans pause. The barrage of hurricanes, unprecedented rainfall and flooding, searing wildfires, and extreme heat affect us all in one way or another,” the post warned. “Emergency preparedness is of the utmost importance as experts believe that years like 2017 may become the new normal in terms of disaster intensity.”
“Your Unblinking Eye”
TigerSwan’s promotional push has focused on the company’s GuardianAngel brand tracking system.
A February 8 post suggested the system played a vital role in the wake of Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina, when TigerSwan co-located with law enforcement and emergency managers for 17 days at the State Emergency Response Center. According to the post, “The GuardianAngel phone app, satellite phones, OBD2 trackers, and other GPS/satellite-enabled devices were distributed to North Carolina National Guard personnel and equipment, State Highway Patrol units, Swift Water Rescue teams, and damage assessment teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.” A year later, the company teamed up with the North Carolina National Guard in its Hurricane Harvey response, according to the February 1 post, planting tracking beacons on National Guard aircraft.
In its simplest format, GuardianAngel is a phone app that allows the security firm to track the user’s location. It’s marketed as “your unblinking eye,” a phrase that’s also used by the military to describe drone surveillance. According to TigerSwan’s promotional material, if GuardianAngel users find themselves in a crisis, they can hit their phone’s SOS button and call the security firm instead of local emergency services. The app also sends push notifications should terrorism or natural disaster strike. And for places where cellphone service is nonexistent, TigerSwan describes satellite-linked tracking and communication devices it can attach to people or equipment.
A tweet from March 2017 referencing an outage that prevented AT&T customers from dialing 911 outlines the type of scenario for which GuardianAngel is built: one in which public services can’t be trusted and dialing 911 no longer brings help — a scenario that becomes more plausible with the deep crises unmitigated climate change is expected to bring with greater frequency.
But three former TigerSwan contractors who worked with the app, and declined to be named for fear of legal and employment consequences, said it was unlikely to provide protection that emergency services could not. They said the app had a host of problems, including GPS that was frequently imprecise.
“A lot of places you would need something like that are in countries with no infrastructure. So having the button, cool, if you’re in the middle of a city,” said one of the former contractors.
TigerSwan personnel carried the app on their phones while working on the Dakota Access pipeline project, so that managers could track their locations in North Dakota, Iowa, and South Dakota. “Fifty percent of the time you didn’t have a signal, and it didn’t work anyway if you wanted to use it for an SOS,” said one of the former contractors.
In response to questions from The Intercept, a TigerSwan spokesperson stated, “Blogs that continue to base their stories on hearsay from unnamed sources are the very definition of fake news.”
The North Carolina National Guard and North Carolina Emergency Management downplayed their collaboration with TigerSwan. Keith Acree, a spokesperson for the emergency management department, said the agency used TigerSwan’s technology on a test basis twice, placing tracking devices on some vehicles and with some teams during winter storms in early 2016 and Hurricane Matthew that fall. “There is no contractual relationship with TigerSwan. They were paid a flat rate for use of their system on those two occasions, and NCEM has not used them since,” he said.
North Carolina National Guard spokesperson Matthew Boyle told The Intercept, “The only actual time we worked with them was a technology demonstration in the summer in 2016. Other than that, we haven’t utilized their services.” He added, “Their claiming to be on aviation assets — I don’t know if that’s true or not.”
“A Piece of the Pie”
“Puerto Rico is ripe for a corporation like TigerSwan,” said William Ramirez, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico. Encouraged by the unelected Financial Oversight and Management Board’s privatization efforts, Hurricane Maria led to a rush of profiteers, many of which claimed altruistic intentions, Ramirez said. “Are they truly here for relief, or are they here to cut a piece of the pie for themselves?” he asked.
Shortly after Maria hit, TigerSwan was en route. “Armed with nothing but a list of names and addresses, our team set out on a search and rescue mission to locate displaced employees,” TigerSwan wrote. The security firm described spending 20 days in the territory, tracking down 100 employees of its client “and providing generators, water, and assessing medical needs where possible.”
“From monitoring unique personnel traveling deep into the interior of Puerto Rico via GuardianAngel satellite-enabled beacons, to tracking key assets in the air and on the ground using a variety of cellular or satellite-based beacons, GuardianAngel gave the team a real-time view of actions and activity around the island,” the company wrote.
One of the former TigerSwan contractors, who is now working in Puerto Rico, said he was unaware of any contracts TigerSwan had obtained on the island except for a small company that used GuardianAngel’s satellite tracking beacons on their vehicles.
TigerSwan spokesperson Wesley Fricks declined to name the client in Puerto Rico, saying only, “We provide a range of consultative, risk management services that increase safety and enhance situational awareness.” He added, “As a team leader in Puerto Rico for several weeks, it was very rewarding to be able to assist in the response effort, from managing our client responsibilities to pitching in and supporting other volunteer efforts. Whether it was helping groups trying to rescue abandoned animals or assisting others in unloading planes with donated supplies, there was a great community of support in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.”
TigerSwan was part of an influx of security-oriented groups that arrived on the island as the storm dissipated, including military members and law enforcement deployed from the U.S. mainland. Ramirez said that the out-of-state officers had a tendency to step on Puerto Ricans’ rights. For example, in one complaint filed to the Puerto Rican police department, the ACLU describes how an unidentifiable out-of-state law enforcement officer illegally searched a driver’s glovebox after the driver was pulled over for a traffic infraction.
According to the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, the post-Katrina private security scene was replayed in San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood, where heavily armed, masked private security officers guarded the upscale Ciudadela housing development. The owner of the development, Nick Prouty, told the outlet, “With a substantial reduction in the number of police officers on the streets (due to the government’s reallocation of resources to protect diesel and supply chains), and most streets lights not functioning, Ciudadela has taken the necessary steps to make its residents and commercial tenants feel safe.”
A number of security and infrastructure companies took up arms as they began to rebuild the territory, thanks to an executive order that allowed expedited approval for private employees to carry guns.
TigerSwan personnel were unarmed in Puerto Rico, according to Fricks, but the company’s deepest experience is in war zones. Founded by James Reese, a commander for the elite special operations unit Delta Force, TigerSwan got its start as a military contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it continues to work. A large proportion of its personnel are former special operations members.
Indeed, at the same time that TigerSwan was promoting its hurricane response work, personnel were jetting off to the Kuwait International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq, where TigerSwan sought some of the $30 billion put up for post-ISIS recovery, yet another conflict wrought by fossil fuel politics.
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