Less than two weeks before this year’s presidential election, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison attempted to assuage voters’ fears of an intimidation campaign at the polls. Outcry had erupted after the Tennessee-based private security company Atlas Aegis posted an ad seeking to recruit former special operations service members to “protect election polls, local businesses and residences from looting and destruction” for the remarkably high rate of $910 per day. Asked about it by a Washington Post reporter, Atlas Aegis head Anthony Caudle said personnel would be “there to make sure that the antifas don’t try to destroy the election sites.”
Since it’s illegal for private security to be stationed within 100 feet of polling stations unless appointed as “sergeant at arms” by election officials, Ellison acted fast, launching an investigation into the company. By October 23, the attorney general’s office was assuring Minnesotans that no Atlas Aegis security workers would be guarding polling sites against “antifas” on Election Day, based on written assurances the company submitted in response to the investigation.
Voting rights groups still have concerns. As Ellison began his probe, the League of Women Voters Minnesota and the Minnesota Council on American-Islamic Relations filed their own lawsuit against Atlas Aegis. They succeeded in winning a federal court injunction preventing agents of Atlas Aegis or its owner from getting within 2,500 feet of any Minnesota polling place. But the win was partial: The assurances Atlas Aegis submitted to the attorney general stated that its recruitment efforts originated with a Minnesota security firm, and the voting rights groups want to know which firm it was.
The Minnesota company, according to Atlas Aegis, had reached out to firms outside of the state to recruit personnel to protect property — not polling sites — in the event of election-related unrest. Two additional companies, 10-Code Security and 5326 Consultants, had alerted Atlas Aegis to the “opportunity,” according to the agreement between Ellison’s office and Atlas Aegis. Pressed by the court to provide the identities of the main contractor as well as its businesses clients — initially referred to as John Does in court — Atlas Aegis supplied a murky answer: The firm’s officials simply “do not know the identity” of any of them. “The only parties who might be a John Doe are 10 Code LLC, 5326 Consultants and Rozin Security,” according Atlas Aegis’s response to a discovery request in court.
The evasive response is typical of a lightly regulated industry where rosters of military-trained personnel are commodities to be bought and sold — and where routine use of subcontractors complicates efforts at accountability. It’s a matter of renewed importance in a moment when distrust of police is widespread and Minneapolis residents are rethinking what community security should look like. After widespread property damage amid protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and a reported uptick in crime, businesses in the Twin Cities are increasingly turning to the private sector for safety. As utopian visions shifting the police’s role in society percolate, the private security industry is booming.
A review by The Intercept of WhatsApp chat logs and internal private security company documents, as well as interviews with private security company operators, shows that Atlas Aegis is not the only private security firm that saw “opportunity” in the threat of Election Day or post-election unrest. Armed special operations veterans hired by security firms will certainly be on the streets in greater numbers this week, even if they are not at the polls themselves.
Two of the possible John Does, Rozin Security and 10-Code, will be working together to deploy a force of 30 people to protect businesses, according to an interview with Rozin Security CEO Kathryn Rozin. (10-Code declined to comment.) “There’s been an increased demand nationwide for private security services due to the public’s perception of authorities, whether it’s the police department or the National Guard,” said Rozin. “I would argue that these places of business, whether it’s a grocery store or a bigger retailer like Target or even a condo building, have an obligation to make their employees feel safe and for the public to feel safe utilizing these services.” (Rozin declined to share information about her company’s clients and said she chose Target as an example because they are so well-known. A Target spokesperson told The Intercept that the company has hired neither Rozin Security nor 10-Code to provide security around the election period.)
Rozin Security has said it played a role defending Minneapolis businesses and working with the government during unrest this summer. According to a local ABC affiliate, the company’s “team of former special operations forces members helped track the violence and also were involved in protecting key sites on the streets.” The television station spoke to Michael Rozin, Kathryn’s husband and the president and co-founder of the company. “The anarchists, the extremist groups, were operating in an organized fashion,” said Michael Rozin, who is a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces. “They were operating in what almost appears to be an asymmetric warfare manner.”
“The idea that people may be out there recruiting personnel trained for the field of war to be in vigilante fashion patrolling our own civilians in our own streets in the U.S. is very alarming.”
On Election Day, Rozin’s personnel will not be at polling sites, the CEO added, and her company has never worked with Atlas Aegis. Rozin sees no problem with deploying military-trained guards. “Who do you think is better suited for the job? Somebody with no training? A mall cop?” she asked. “I fully understand that it’s Election Day but it really has nothing to do with the election. It really has to do with safety and security for our communities.”
Some voting rights advocates, however, take a different view. “The idea that people may be out there recruiting personnel trained for the field of war to be in vigilante fashion patrolling our own civilians in our own streets in the U.S. is very alarming,” said Ben Clements, lead counsel for the voting rights groups and chair and senior legal adviser to the organization Free Speech for the People. Short of full disclosure of the companies on behalf of which Atlas Aegis was recruiting, his team has argued, Minnesotans may lack access to free and fair elections on Tuesday.
In mid-September, Nick Rabenau, who says he is a former Army Green Beret, left a position as vice president with the security firm the North Group. A day later, Rabenau sent a WhatsApp text to contacts in his network. The thread was titled “Pipe Hitters Club,” a term used to refer to combat veterans. “I want to extend an opportunity to you. We will be staffing a very large security detail within the Minneapolis area over the course of the election,” he said. “This is all based on client requests and the violence that sparks from the election results.”
A document was distributed describing the “mission objective”: “To provide protective services, and deterrence of any looters, rioters, or other threat actors, to private residences, commercial real estate buildings, grocery stores, car dealerships, and other locations.” Operators would be paid $800 per day plus $210 daily for expenses. They were asked to bring a “full kit,” including a tactical vest, side arm, and long rifle. The assignment was expected to run from November 2 to November 9.
Rabenau was recruiting on behalf of Rozin, he explained on the chats. Rozin lacked a security license in Minnesota and markets itself as a consultant, so, as Kathryn Rozin confirmed, on-the-ground work would be subcontracted to the licensed private security firm 10-Code LLC. (She said the company later made Rabenau change the name of the Whatsapp group, “Pipe Hitters Club,” for fear that it was unseemly.) Though neither Rabeneau nor 10-Code commented, The Intercept obtained a packet of information branded with Rozin’s and 10-Code’s logos, titled “Armed Security Detail – November Election Support” and containing information for out-of-state operators that would be working in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The private security triumvirate that was taking shape in Minneapolis — Rozin, Rabenau, and 10-Code — all have controversial histories in the security business.
As manager of a specialized security force at Minnesota’s Mall of America, Michael Rozin used a technique of interview-based behavior profiling similar to what’s used at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv, where he used to work, according to news reports and an interview with Kathryn Rozin. (Rozin told The Intercept that the firm uses behavior “detection,” rather than “profiling,” adding: “There’s an important difference which is based in science, we do not profile, in fact if one profiles they could miss the possible threat actor.”)
The Center for Investigative Reporting and NPR investigated the impacts of the approach at the mall in 2011, finding that shoppers were being intensively questioned by mall security guards and that mall officials had filed a number of suspicious activity reports to a local law enforcement fusion center, based on noncriminal behaviors. Two-thirds of the reports journalists reviewed described people of color or “other minorities.” Rozin Security uses a similar approach in its proprietary trainings on its Suspicion Indicators Recognition and Assessment system. (Kathryn Rozin said the NPR article was “severely flawed, biased and refutable,” without describing what was inaccurate.)
Meanwhile, 10-Code specializes in oil-industry security and previously helped guard the protest-plagued Dakota Access Pipeline construction site near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Company personnel were present on the infamous day in September 2016 when another security company sicced dogs on pipeline opponents, according to public records obtained by reporter Will Parrish. Since then, 10-Code’s president, Steve Lundin, lobbied successfully for a “critical infrastructure protection” bill in Oklahoma and unsuccessfully for one in Wyoming. The bills were aimed at increasing penalties for pipeline opponents protesting near fossil fuel infrastructure. (Similar bills have been repeatedly introduced, but never passed, in the Minnesota legislature, though no evidence has emerged that Lundin was involved in lobbying for them.)
For his part, Rabenau, the recruiter, got in trouble in Illinois for running a concealed carry training program without being certified as an instructor. The state of Illinois alleged that he had illegally doled out at least three forged training certificates required for gun owners to conceal and carry their weapons, according to news reports. In a settlement signed in 2017, Rabenau pleaded guilty to misdemeanor attempted theft.
Kathryn Rozin said Rabenau had passed extensive background checks by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the FBI. She added that her company was aware of his record and did not believe any of his actions disqualified him from the work. Rabenau did not respond to requests for comment.
“This is all aboveboard,” Rozin said, adding that the company works “hand in hand” with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies and had even communicated Atlas Aegis’s actions to the FBI. In a statement, Rozin said, “RSC contacted the FBI on October 1, 9, and 15 2020 regarding the Atlas Aegis solicitation to report what appeared to be an effort to suppress the vote.”
It’s unknown whether Rabenau’s recruitment effort was linked to Atlas Aegis. A special operations veteran who requested to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions to his employability told The Intercept that Atlas Aegis had sent him a similar pitch before the court order. Other companies had also reached out to the veteran offering work around the election period.
Another special operations veteran in the area, who also asked for anonymity for fear of repercussions to his employability, told The Intercept that he’d received a text from a friend who also works in the industry. “If you are here during the elections you want to make $1000 a day to do security with me?” the text read. “We are going under the radar, no kit or weapons out just stay inside.” The veteran declined to name the company that was recruiting and said he did not take the job.
“We did inform Atlas Aegis about this opportunity in September. But we never actually worked with them.”
5326 Consultants, the third company that Atlas Aegis said “might be” a John Doe security firm in response to court-ordered discovery, said the company will not be conducting any security before or after the election in Minnesota. Chief operating officer Stacey Blau, a former CIA official, however, said that 5326 had considered doing security work — not for polling places but for businesses. “We did inform Atlas Aegis about this opportunity in September. We had an exploratory conversation with them, kind of like an interview,” she said in an email. “But we never actually worked with them. And, given their extremely irresponsible public comments a few weeks [sic] about providing so-called security for polling places and official election activities, we never would want to work with them.”
In Minnesota, though, security firms’ interest in opportunities extends beyond just election-related work. “Since the George Floyd riots there has been a increase want for spec ops vets,” the first former military member said over text. “the work that is offered has always been vague, there is always a price they offer ranging from $750-$1500 a day to work in a armed security role.”
The chair of the Minnesota Board of Private Detective and Protective Agent Services, Rick Hodsdon, said the board has fielded a number of reports of unlicensed private security activity since George Floyd’s killing. The complaints are difficult to follow up on, he said, since the licensing board is under-resourced, with only three staff members overseeing an industry employing 14,000 people in the state.
The first special operations veteran told The Intercept that he’s concerned that the sprawling network of recruiters he encountered in advance of the election could result in armed security companies working on the ground that have not been properly vetted. He said the biggest risk is for “our general population to be subjected to half ass security provided by low life’s who are just trying to make money on people’s individual fear of our current situation.”
Updated: November 1, 2020, 1:57 p.m.
This story has been updated to include a comment from Kathryn Rozin made after publication indicating that the firm disputes its mall security work is based on “profiling.”