Targets included grieving family of Rachel Corrie, environmental activists and local campaigners protesting about phone masts
British Airways, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Porsche are among five large companies that have been identified as having paid corporate intelligence firms to monitor political groups that challenged their businesses, leaked documents reveal.
The surveillance included the use of infiltrators to spy on campaigners.
The targets included the grieving family of Rachel Corrie, a student protester crushed to death by a bulldozer, as well as a range of environmental campaigns, and local campaigners protesting about phone masts.
The leaked documents suggest the use of secretive corporate security firms to gather intelligence about political campaigners has been widespread. However, police chiefs have in the past raised a massive concern that the activities of the corporate firms are barely regulated and completely uncontrolled.
The police have claimed that commercial firms have had more spies embedded in political groups than there were undercover police officers.
The revelations are based on hundreds of pages of leaked documents from two corporate intelligence firms, seen by the Guardian and the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, that reveal the inner workings of a normally subterranean industry over several years in the 2000s.
The cache shows how one of the firms, C2i International, used two infiltrators to acquire advance warning of demonstrations that were being mounted against firms and to feed this information to those firms.
The infiltrators pretended to be activists sympathetic to the cause of the campaigners, helping to organise and attending their demonstrations, including on one occasion dressing up as a pirate with a cutlass and eyepatch as part of a protest. They often obtained the campaigners internal documents such as emails and accounts of meetings.
Caterpillar, one of the worlds biggest manufacturing companies, hired C2i, which gathered information about a grieving family that was taking legal action against the firm. A contract drawn up by Caterpillar and signed by C2i instructed that its work should be kept confidential.
Corrie, 23, was crushed to death in 2003 by an Israeli military bulldozer as she protested against the demolition of Palestinian homes. The bulldozer was said to have been manufactured and sold to the Israeli military by Caterpillar.
Corries family took legal action against Caterpillar, alleging that the firm was complicit in war crimes by exporting bulldozers to the Israelis knowing that they would be used to demolish Palestinian homes.
In 2007, US judges dismissed the Corries legal action, concluding that they did not have the jurisdiction to decide the case.
Nine days later Corries mother, Cindy, spoke on a conference telephone call to around 70 members of a campaign that was supporting the familys lawsuit. C2i obtained the campaigns notes of the call.
Her comments are recorded in a five-page restricted commercial document known as a corporate threat intelligence alert, written by C2i and marked with the Caterpillar logo.
According to the alert, the conference call was held in direct response to the collapse of the court case and the recent death of a 17-year-old in Gaza. It appears that any member of the public could dial into the call, which was relatively little publicised.
The alert noted that Cindy Corrie gave an update on the court case and the future strategy of campaign was discussed She gave a detailed chronological account of the legal developments in the case most notably the judges decision not to reinstate the case.
It recorded how she gave her views on the progress on the lawsuit and their options for taking it forward.
Cindy Corrie told the Guardian that she found it really distasteful that the corporate spies had misrepresented themselves to listen in on the conference call, which she thought consisted of a group of supporters. She said her family had asked Caterpillar for an open dialogue about the lawsuit but had been turned down.
In the UK, Caterpillar hired a second corporate intelligence firm to monitor protesters in 2005, according to another set of leaked documents.
The clandestine Inkerman Group gathers information about protesters and has covertly deployed infiltrators on demonstrations that are directed at firms. One of its confidential documents has warned of the threat presented by protest groups that use direct action to disrupt the economic welfare of companies.
Caterpillar declined to answer specific questions, saying that as a general practice it did not discuss specifics of its relationship with suppliers. It said: Where Caterpillar uses outside firms, the company would expect those firms to act in a lawful manner and in accordance with our values in action.
Leaked Inkerman documents also show how the firm obtained what it called verbatim emails that were being circulated among local protesters who were objecting on health grounds to phone masts being built. The campaigner who sent one of the emails said he believed it was a private communication.
Inkerman noted in a 2003 internal assessment that the anti-mast campaigners appeared to be copying tactics used by environmentalists against firms that it said it had attracted their perverse attention.
Inkerman declined to comment when it was asked who had hired it to collect information about the phone mast campaigners and how it had obtained the emails.
The energy firm RWE nPower has said it hired Inkerman in the past.
Leaked documents show that C2i claimed it had real-time intelligence assets in a range of environmental campaigns including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, local green groups in Oxford and all antiaviation groups.
Its clients included Royal Bank of Scotland, British Airways and Porsche around 2008. That year, C2i pitched its services to Donald Trumps property development firm, which was seeking to create a huge golf course and build a hotel and flats on ecologically sensitive land in Scotland. C2i said Trumps firm was under threat from a consortium of environmental activists. However, it is not known whether Trumps firm hired C2i. The firm and C2i declined to comment.
RBS said it no longer used corporate intelligence firms to gather information.
C2i, which changed its name before being wound up in 2011, was set up by Justin King, a former special forces pilot who said he specialised in surveillance and counter-intelligence.
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