Amid Terror Warnings, Railroad Industry Group Passed Intel on Environmental Journalist to Cops

By distributing private intelligence reports to federal "fusion centers," industries can influence how law enforcement views threats.

A BNSF freight train hauling oil tankers loaded with crude oil heads west through the this downtown transcontinental railroad hub on June 22, 2018, in Whitefish, Montana.
A BNSF freight train hauling oil tankers loaded with crude oil heads west through the this downtown transcontinental railroad hub on June 22, 2018, in Whitefish, Montana. Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

Environmental reporter Justin Mikulka was unnerved as he scanned through the pages. “A friend had contacted me and said that he had found some documents with my name in them,” Mikulka recalled to The Intercept. “He told me I really had to see them for myself.”

Mikulka did see for himself. Descriptions of the journalist and his work were nestled among security reports detailing bloody terrorist attacks and far-right threats, in documents prepared by a private railway industry group and shared with law enforcement. The series of documents suggested that law enforcement was being taught to view him — an author whose work specializes in the hazards of transporting oil by rail — as a possible instigator of criminal activity and a threat to railway safety.

“I knew that the industry was aware of my work and didn’t like it, but the idea that they were privately lumping me in with terrorists to law enforcement is frightening and shocking,” Mikulka said. “To whom were these documents presented? Am I now on security lists, being ranked as a threat to the rail industry? It seems like they couldn’t challenge what I’m saying on a factual basis so they resorted to attacking me like this.”

While not accusing him of being a criminal himself, the documents warned that Mikulka’s writing about the dangers of shipping oil by rail could inspire “criminal activity” in the form of protests that disrupt rail activity.

“The effect of this criminal activity is to escalate the very risk that Mikulka professes he wishes to avoid,” one report claimed, noting, “the potential for derailment escalates dramatically when people and objects are present on tracks.”

The reports singling out Mikulka alongside neo-Nazis and radical Islamic terrorists were included in a series of slide presentations prepared by the Association of American Railroads and distributed to member corporations — as well as to law enforcement. Described on its website as “the world’s leading railroad policy, research, standard setting and technology organization,” the AAR is an industry trade group representing the political interests of the railway business in the United States.

Over the last couple of years, Mikulka and his reporting were featured in at least four separate “Railway Awareness Daily Analytic Reports (RADAR).” Mikulka’s friend found the documents the same way The Intercept did: as part of a trove of documents dubbed “BlueLeaks” that was hacked from so-called fusion centers — regional clearing houses coordinated by the federal government for the purposes of sharing information — and published by the transparency collective Distributed Denial of Secrets. More than two dozen RADAR reports had been stored by two fusion centers, the Maine Information and Analysis Center and the Southeast Florida Fusion Center, along with dozens of additional security reports authored by the AAR. (The fusion centers declined to comment.)

The RADAR reports serve as a poignant example of how the private industry group collaborates closely with public law enforcement agencies, assisted by a national network of fusion centers. The intelligence hubs were designed to bring local, state, and federal law enforcement and security agencies together with private businesses to share information about potential threats. The BlueLeaks documents provide a picture of a system capable of transforming a threat to a corporation’s bottom line into a security threat to be addressed by police.

The AAR chose a particularly sensitive moment to pass information about a journalist to law enforcement. Even without goading from the private sector, local and federal law enforcement, as well as other security agencies, have repeatedly targeted journalists under the Trump administration. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, recently came under fire for developing intelligence files on journalists covering anti-racism protests in Portland, Oregon, and for detaining journalists covering the U.S.-Mexico border. And, in cities from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., local police attacked dozens of journalists during protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

In response to an inquiry, the AAR claimed that because their bulletins are based on open-source material, they are not intelligence reports. “RADAR is intended to keep industry and government partners apprised of trends and published conversations surrounding safety and security issues both in the U.S. and abroad,” the AAR spokesperson said. “The document does not provide or contain intelligence. Its content is drawn largely from widely available news reports, social media posts, and other online publications.” Open-source intelligence, however, is widely recognized as being drawn from these media. The CIA, for instance, defines “open-source intelligence” to include “traditional mass media, the internet, specialized journals, studies, conference proceedings, geospatial information, and more.”

Mikulka was just one of a range of fossil fuel industry critics framed by the rail industry as a potential threat. Another RADAR report raised alarms about the creation of the philanthropic Climate Emergency Fund, noting that its board includes environmental journalists Bill McKibben and David Wallace-Wells. Other documents detailed the activities of fossil fuel opponents like Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, Wild Idaho Rising Tide, and the anti-Bayou Bridge pipeline L’eau Est La Vie camp in Louisiana.

According to Brendan McQuade, author of the book “Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision,” the documents mentioning Mikulka exemplify how fusion centers act as a vein through which corporations can inject their interests into the work of public security forces. This type of political policing, he said, is distinct from what happened at the height of the 1960s civil rights movement, when the FBI targeted activists. There’s no villainous program like COINTELPRO specifically aimed at identifying leaders and eliminating them. What does exist is a decentralized system that various interests can manipulate toward their own ends, with little accountability.

McQuade said that for industry critics, the documents contain a message: “There is an active, organized, powerful set of interests, state and corporate, that are out to defeat you politically,” he said. “That needs to be acknowledged and that needs to be politicized.”

Alluding to the climate crisis, McQuade added, “It’s not hyperbole to say the decisions being made now will decide whether humanity survives the 21st century.”

Law enforcement officers escort a train as it moves from the Port of Olympia through downtown Olympia, Wash., on Nov. 18, 2016.

Law enforcement officers escort a train as it moves from the Port of Olympia through downtown Olympia, Wash., on Nov. 18, 2016.

Photo: Tony Overman/The Olympian via AP

On Privatized Policing, History Rhymes

The interests of the fossil fuel and rail industries have long been closely entwined. According to the AAR’s web site, “coal has been the single most important commodity carried by U.S. railroads” — a circumstance that endured from the 1800s, when railroads not only shipped coal but also mined and stored it.

The rail industry’s close collaboration with law enforcement can also be traced to the era of industrialization. Capitalists transporting goods didn’t trust frontier law enforcement, so they created a market for private security and intelligence agents. In fact, the notorious Pinkerton detective agency got its start providing security services to railroad companies.

So close-knit were the coal industry and the rail industry that Pennsylvania’s Railroad Police, which was formed as a private police force in the mid-19th century, soon became known as the Coal and Iron Police, with officers hired directly by companies, but given state policing power with almost no oversight. The Pinkerton agents, working closely with privatized police forces, didn’t just chase train robbers — they became synonymous with political policing, working to crush the labor movement.

“History doesn’t repeat, but it does kind of rhyme. What’s happening now doesn’t look like the COINTELPRO era, but it might look a little bit like the period between the end of the Civil War and the 1930s,” said McQuade. “The role of the private sector in the work of providing security was plain in that period.”

Today’s system of fusion centers took root in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The centers proliferated across the U.S., just as the climate movement was growing. Among other things, the centers prioritized protecting “critical infrastructure” — a notion that meant certain industries, such as railroads and oil and gas companies, were granted favored status and their well-being viewed as synonymous with national security. Collaborative projects between law enforcement and corporate players multiplied.

Meanwhile, private industry intelligence gathering also evolved to help share information with law enforcement and national security agencies. In addition to fusion centers, McQuade noted, “There’s this alternate world of private intelligence centers.”

“If you dig through BlueLeaks, it’s plain the way police and corporate security work together.”

The rail industry’s security nerve center is the AAR’s Railway Alert Network, which appears to function similarly to a fusion center, with industry officials analyzing “intelligence” from both open sources and member corporations. RADAR reports, as well as a second type of bulletin called RAN reports, which focus more narrowly on individual threats, are akin to fusion center reports, distributed to public officials as well as to the largest rail companies in the U.S. The Railway Alert Network’s updates, in turn, are often cited in the fusion centers’ own reports. An online Rail Security Information Portal for Law Enforcement provides yet another vector for corporate perceptions of threats to filter to police.

Another way many industries insert their interests into police forces is through federally recognized Information and Analysis Centers, or ISACs. Indeed, dozens of Transit and Rail Intelligence Awareness Reports, or TRIADs, were included among the hacked fusion center documents distributed as part of BlueLeaks. The reports are a collaborative project between the AAR, the federal Transportation Security Administration, and two transportation ISACs, composed of industry players.

The overall picture created by these overlapping channels for passing information is one of extensive communication between private industry and public law enforcement, allowing industry to influence law enforcement and national security policy.

McQuade said, “If you dig through BlueLeaks, it’s plain the way police and corporate security work together.”

Railway Association Casts Wide Net

One November 2018 RADAR report demonstrates how little it can take for the AAR to view something as a threat — then pass word of the purported danger on to law enforcement. For example, one RADAR report noted that a small, local anti-fracking organization, Western NY Drilling Defense, was holding meetings at a community library. It’s unclear why the meetings were of interest to the industry association, especially since the report admitted that the group had no apparent plans to even carry out civil disobedience against the rail industry.

The document also includes a note describing how Howie Hawkins, a Green Party candidate at the time for the governor of New York, had raised alarms about so-called bomb trains — loaded with explosive fuels like crude oil — during his campaign. RADAR documents mentioned protest actions in Germany and Australia, far from the railways of the AAR’s member companies.

The AAR spokesperson told The Intercept, “The rail industry supports responsible public discourse, legal assembly, and peaceful demonstrations that help draw attention to issues facing our nation and the globe – in this case climate change. However, trespassing onto rail property for demonstrations creates safety and security risks, exposing the protesters and railroad workers to potentially serious injury or even death. Publicly reported information and online conversations about the potential for actions that present risks of this nature are included in the RADAR for awareness purposes.”

The RADAR documents in the BlueLeaks archive include reports from the summer of 2018 up until the summer of 2020. AAR personnel filed blurbs under categories like “cyber,” “rail security,” and “terrorism” but also “opposition to fossil fuels” and “direct action.” The AAR’s references to activists often reflected a concern that the legal system and the public may come to view acts of civil disobedience by the climate movement as acceptable — and they made a point to frame such tolerance as a safety risk.

A July 2019 report, for example, claimed that even though the newly launched philanthropic Climate Emergency Fund is designed to focus on “nonviolent, legal activities,” its funding of the activist group Extinction Rebellion “supports the notion that unlawful behavior targeting the fossil fuel industry is both publicly acceptable and for the greater good.” The same document lamented that fossil fuel opponents were claiming victory after prosecutors dropped charges against activists that blocked construction of the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline. The AAR pointed to other states that have passed “critical infrastructure protection” laws to deter pipeline protesters.

Media coverage, the AAR underlined, plays a key role in whether such protest actions are viewed as acceptable. The documents described in detail the train blockades in Canada, erected in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en First Nation leaders who opposed the Coastal GasLink pipeline. “The blockade campaign progressively wound down in the latter part of February and early March,” a May 2020 RADAR report noted. “A key contributing factor was the shift in the tone and substance of media coverage, which highlighted the adverse impacts to small businesses and workers from halts in freight rail services.”

Another document analyzing a New York Times report about oil-by-rail safety guidelines noted that climate groups’ “ongoing and widely publicized campaign, in combination with negative coverage by major news outlets such as the New York Times, may serve to influence or galvanize more long-term activism against the oil-by-rail industry throughout North America.”

Monitoring a Journalist

As the rise in natural gas and renewable energy production in the last 20 years caused a sharp downturn in the transport of coal by rail, AAR lobbied heavily against new regulations limiting the train transport of liquified natural gas and crude oil. The shifts were the context for Mikulka releasing “Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk” in 2019.

Firefighters inspect the wreckage on July 7, 2013 of a freight train loaded with oil that derailed July 6 in Lac-Megantic in Canada's Quebec province, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in a wall of fire.

Firefighters inspect the wreckage on July 7, 2013, of a freight train loaded with oil that derailed July 6 in Lac-Mégantic in Canada’s Quebec province, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in a wall of fire.

Photo: François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP via Getty Images

The book compiled his research into a terrible railway explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and raised the alarm about industry corruption and malpractice that made such tragedies more likely in the future. As his research described, the environmentally hazardous practice of transporting oil by rail was putting tens of millions more people in North America at similar risk. Efforts by the industry to deregulate its practices under the Trump administration were exacerbating the dangers to both people and the environment.

The book was well received in environmental circles, including among activists and scholars who focus specifically on the rail industry. It did not, however, go over well with the AAR.

While not identifying him as a criminal or terrorist, the RADAR reports characterized the environmental reporter and author as a possible radicalizing influence on others. They went into extensive detail outlining Mikulka’s upcoming speaking events about his book — putting those events on law enforcement’s radar — while making defensive comments about his criticisms and the rail industry’s own ostensible efforts to reduce rail disasters.

“These are people who are willing to lie and misrepresent the facts to the public to keep running these dangerous trains. They are willing to go very far to keep doing this.”

“The significance of Mikulka’s article is not in its lacking factual basis, but rather the potential to influence and inspire anti-fossil fuels activists to direct their attention to actions that disrupt and delay train operations,” noted one RADAR report from July 2019.

The AAR suggested to its law enforcement audience that it is not industry corner-cutting that presents the true safety risk but Mikulka’s book itself. Others who may read his reporting on the dangerous environmental consequences of railroad practices might be inspired to “criminal activity,” such as protests and direct-action events that impede the flow of rail traffic. “The effect of this criminal activity is to escalate the very risk that Mikulka professes he wishes to avoid — for the potential for derailment escalates dramatically when people and objects are present on tracks,” the AAR wrote.

The AAR also cast blame on an environmentally focused news website for which Mikulka writes, DeSmog. “While Justin Mikulka’s writings have never been directly linked to specific direct actions targeting the rail industry, his DeSmogBlog posts are frequently shared and commented on by activist groups primarily focused on opposing oil-by-rail,” said another RADAR report about Mikulka’s book from July 2019.

The next slide in that same presentation was about a stabbing and car-ramming massacre by terrorists in London that killed eight people.

Mikulka said groups like railway associations are willing to “misrepresent the facts to the public to keep running these dangerous trains. They are willing to go very far to keep doing this.”

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