Following critical stories about the policing of anti-pipeline activists, a Minnesota law enforcement agency barred a federally affiliated body from releasing documents through the state’s public records laws, according to documents obtained by The Intercept.
The Minnesota Fusion Center, a police intelligence-sharing partnership affiliated with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is sidestepping the state’s freedom of information law by citing security concerns, though it had in the past released records related to its policing of pipeline opponents. The fusion center is refusing to release any public records pertaining to activities, including surveillance, against opponents of the energy firm Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline until after it is constructed, according to one of the documents.
“It is a little unprecedented for a police agency to refuse to disclose records concerning its activities like this with respect to one specific construction project.”
The unusual policy came after The Intercept and other media outlets published stories documenting law enforcement surveillance and coordination with private security during protests against Line 3, part of a trend in which aggressive policing against pipeline opponents across the U.S. was reported by media. Many of the news stories concerning Minnesota police activities were based on records provided under the Minnesota Data Practices Act and reporting on anti-pipeline struggles in other states has relied on similar public transparency laws.
“It is a little unprecedented for a police agency to refuse to disclose records concerning its activities like this with respect to one specific construction project,” said Freddy Martinez, a transparency law expert and policy analyst for the group Open the Government. “I’ve never seen something quite like this.”
Big Wind, a Northern Arapaho tribal member opposing the pipeline said police are attempting to cover up their activities because freedom of information requests have exposed damaging and embarrassing information about them that has helped further the struggle against the pipeline.
“Freedom of information requests are how lots of things came to light about the police working with private mercenaries during Standing Rock, and also about how Enbridge is paying the police here in Minnesota,” said Big Wind, who is affiliated with the anti-pipeline Namewag Camp. “We know there is still a lot of information about what Enbridge and the police are doing to us here that they don’t want to be revealed.”
The policy enacted by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which oversees the fusion center, asserts that it is withholding Line 3-related records to prevent “terrorists,” “criminals,” and “those who would create public safety hazards” from having access to them, according to a document obtained by The Intercept through a public records request.
The bureau did not respond to requests for comment about whether previous public records disclosures had led to any security concerns or incidents. Bureau spokesperson Jill Oliveira provided only a brief comment by email: “The security declaration is made in accordance with Minnesota state law,” she wrote.
The policy, which was first reported by the media group Unicorn Riot, designates certain records as being related to “security” issues, including “[d]ata captured during surveillance operations in support of Line 3 Replacement Project-related security operations,” as well as information concerning the operations of private security entities employed by Enbridge as well as information provided by other external entities.
The policy, enacted through a “security declaration” signed by Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, the “public safety liaison” for the Line 3 project, simultaneously greenlighted the sharing of surveillance data with other law enforcement agencies and the military as well as with private entities involved in Line 3’s construction. News reports have relied on public records to establish the kind of public-private surveillance dragnet that has seen police work closely with pipeline builder Enbridge.
“It’s outrageous to think that we don’t have access to any of the information police are collecting about us,” said Big Wind, the pipeline opponent, “but that a private corporation that is causing so much harm to our communities does.”
As the Indigenous-led movement — whose members call themselves water protectors — to halt the pipeline has sought to block Line 3’s construction through northern Minnesota this year, members have faced an escalating police response. Law enforcement agencies have monitored water protectors using drones and flyovers. Hundreds of activists have been arrested and charged with crimes, including dozens on felony charges for nonviolent actions that include locking themselves to construction equipment.
On July 29, police used pepper spray, mace, and rubber bullets on water protectors attempting to prevent the pipeline from being drilled under a delicate water ecosystem on the Red Lake River in north-central Minnesota — the most violent law enforcement response so far in the Line 3 struggle.
At the same time, significant aspects of the police operation — including the ways in which Enbridge and police are gathering, collecting, and storing intelligence on water protectors — remain shielded from public view.
Established after the September 11 attacks to share intelligence among federal agencies, local police departments, and the private sector — ostensibly for the purpose of so-called counterterrorism — fusion centers have been coming under increasing scrutiny for their expanded role in routine police work. Last year, the release of a trove of data hacked from fusion centers around the country, known as BlueLeaks, shined a critical light on fusion center activities.
In January 2019, The Intercept reported that the Minnesota Fusion Center was receiving information on Line 3 opponents from numerous police entities across three states, as well as private security firms hired by Enbridge. One sheriff’s analyst described the fusion center as “the keepers of information for the Enbridge protests.” Much of the reporting for the Intercept story was based on documents obtained through a Minnesota Government Data Practices Act request to the fusion center.
Fusion centers in other states have previously engaged in intrusive monitoring of Indigenous-led struggles against pipelines. In North Dakota, the state’s fusion center helped orchestrate surveillance of Dakota Access pipeline opponents in 2016 and 2017. In Oregon, a fusion center helped set up a multi-agency police task force to monitor opponents of the Jordan Cove Energy Project, a proposed pipeline and liquid natural gas export project that has since been canceled in response to grassroots organizing.
Fusion center officers have also shared information on pipeline opponents across state lines. A North Dakota fusion center officer who developed files on individual Dakota Access pipeline opponents and attempted to analyze links between them later offered to share those files with Minnesota police officials who are responding to Line 3 protests, public records acquired by Unicorn Riot showed.
“This form of increasing secrecy around energy infrastructure is troubling, particularly given the government’s history of treating environmental protests as domestic terrorists.”
Martinez, from Open the Government, said that the Minnesota Fusion Center’s Line 3 policy reflects a growing tendency for governments to restrict the release of information about “critical infrastructure,” including fossil fuel installations, on national security grounds. Public agencies may then use these policies as a justification for withholding records related to political opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure.
For example, the Senate’s new draft infrastructure bill requires all states to adopt an “energy security plan” to guard against vulnerabilities to that state’s energy supply, and it would also forbid federal and state entities from releasing records related to the “security” of such infrastructure — including pipelines.
“This form of increasing secrecy around energy infrastructure is troubling, particularly given the government’s history of treating environmental protests as domestic terrorists,” Martinez said. “It’s a trend that’s happening everywhere, but it’s very troubling to see it happening as explicitly as it is in Minnesota.”