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FBI sent several informants to Standing Rock protests, court documents show

Up to 10 informants managed by the FBI were embedded in anti-pipeline resistance camps near the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation at the height of mass protests against the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016. The new details about federal law enforcement surveillance of an Indigenous environmental movement were released as part of a legal fight between North Dakota and the federal government over who should pay for policing the pipeline fight. Until now, the existence of only one other federal informant in the camps had been confirmed. 

The FBI also regularly sent agents wearing civilian clothing into the camps, one former agent told Grist in an interview. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, operated undercover narcotics officers out of the reservation’s Prairie Knights Casino, where many pipeline opponents rented rooms, according to one of the depositions. 

The operations were part of a wider surveillance strategy that included drones, social media monitoring, and radio eavesdropping by an array of state, local, and federal agencies, according to attorneys’ interviews with law enforcement. The FBI infiltration fits into a longer history in the region. In the 1970s, the FBI infiltrated the highest levels of the American Indian Movement, or AIM. 

The Indigenous-led uprising against Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access oil pipeline drew thousands of people seeking to protect water, the climate, and Indigenous sovereignty. For seven months, participants protested to stop construction of the pipeline and were met by militarized law enforcement, at times facing tear gas, rubber bullets, and water hoses in below-freezing weather.

After the pipeline was completed and demonstrators left, North Dakota sued the federal government for more than $38 million — the cost the state claims to have spent on police and other emergency responders, and for property and environmental damage. Central to North Dakota’s complaints are the existence of anti-pipeline camps on federal land managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The state argues that by failing to enforce trespass laws on that land, the Army Corps allowed the camps to grow to up to 8,000 people and serve as a “safe haven” for those who participated in illegal activity during protests and caused property damage. 

In an effort to prove that the federal government failed to provide sufficient support, attorneys deposed officials leading several law enforcement agencies during the protests. The depositions provide unusually detailed information about the way that federal security agencies intervene in climate and Indigenous movements. 

Until the lawsuit, the existence of only one federal informant in the camps was known: Heath Harmon was working as an FBI informant when he entered into a romantic relationship with water protector Red Fawn Fallis. A judge eventually sentenced Fallis to nearly five years in prison after a gun went off when she was tackled by police during a protest. The gun belonged to Harmon. 

Manape LaMere, a member of the Bdewakantowan Isanti and Ihanktowan bands, who is also Winnebago Ho-chunk and spent months in the camps, said he and others anticipated the presence of FBI agents, because of the agency’s history. Camp security kicked out several suspected infiltrators. “We were already cynical, because we’ve had our heart broke before by our own relatives,” he explained.

“The culture of paranoia and fear created around informants and infiltration is so deleterious to social movements, because these movements for Indigenous people are typically based on kinship networks and forms of relationality,” said Nick Estes, a historian and member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe who spent time at the Standing Rock resistance camps and has extensively researched the infiltration of the AIM movement by the FBI. Beyond his relationship with Fallis, Harmon had close familial ties with community leaders and had participated in important ceremonies. Infiltration, Estes said, “turns relatives against relatives.”

Less widely known than the FBI’s undercover operations are those of the BIA, which serves as the primary police force on Standing Rock and other reservations. During the NoDAPL movement, the BIA had “a couple” of narcotics officers operating undercover at the Prairie Knights Casino, according to the deposition of Darren Cruzan, a member of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma who was the director of the BIA’s Office of Justice Services at the time.  

It’s not unusual for the BIA to use undercover officers in its drug busts. However, the intelligence collected by the Standing Rock undercovers went beyond narcotics. “It was part of our effort to gather intel on, you know, what was happening within the boundaries of the reservation and if there were any plans to move camps or add camps or those sorts of things,” Cruzan said.

A spokesperson for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who oversees the BIA, also declined to comment. 

According to the deposition of Jacob O’Connell, the FBI’s supervisor for the western half of North Dakota during the Standing Rock protests, the FBI was infiltrating the NoDAPL movement weeks before the protests gained international media attention and attracted thousands. By August 16, 2016, the FBI had tasked at least one “confidential human source” with gathering information. The FBI eventually had five to 10 informants in the protest camps — “probably closer to 10,” said Bob Perry, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, which oversees operations in the Dakotas, in another deposition. The number of FBI informants at Standing Rock was first reported by the North Dakota Monitor.

According to Perry, FBI agents told recruits what to collect and what not to collect, saying, “We don’t want to know about constitutionally protected activity.” Perry added, “We would give them essentially a list: ‘Violence, potential violence, criminal activity.’ To some point it was health and safety as well, because, you know, we had an informant placed and in position where they could report on that.” 

The deposition of U.S. Marshal Paul Ward said that the FBI also sent agents into the camps undercover. O’Connell denied the claim. “There were no undercover agents used at all, ever.” He confirmed, however, that he and other agents did visit the camps routinely. For the first couple months of the protests, O’Connell himself arrived at the camps soon after dawn most days, wearing outdoorsy clothing from REI or Dick’s Sporting Goods. “Being plainclothes, we could kind of slink around and, you know, do what we had to do,” he said. O’Connell would chat with whomever he ran into. Although he sometimes handed out his card, he didn’t always identify himself as FBI. “If people didn’t ask, I didn’t tell them,” he said.  

He said two of the agents he worked with avoided confrontations with protesters, and Ward’s deposition indicates that the pair raised concerns with the U.S. marshal about the safety of entering the camps without local police knowing. Despite its efforts, the FBI uncovered no widespread criminal activity beyond personal drug use and “misdemeanor-type activity,” O’Connell said in his deposition. 

The U.S. Marshals Service, as well as Ward, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. A spokesperson for the FBI said the press office does not comment on litigation.

Infiltration wasn’t the only activity carried out by federal law enforcement. Customs and Border Protection responded to the protests with its MQ-9 Reaper drone, a model best known for remote airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, which was flying above the encampments by August 22, supplying video footage known as the “Bigpipe Feed.” The drone flew nearly 281 hours over six months, costing the agency $1.5 million. Customs and Border Protection declined a request for comment, citing the litigation.

The biggest beneficiary of federal law enforcement’s spending was Energy Transfer Partners. In fact, the company donated $15 million to North Dakota to help foot the bill for the state’s parallel efforts to quell the disruptions. During the protests, the company’s private security contractor, TigerSwan, coordinated with local law enforcement and passed along information collected by its own undercover and eavesdropping operations.

Energy Transfer Partners also sought to influence the FBI. It was the FBI, however, that initiated its relationship with the company. In his deposition, O’Connell said he showed up at Energy Transfer Partners’ office within a day or two of beginning to investigate the movement and was soon meeting and communicating with executive vice president Joey Mahmoud.

At one point, Mahmoud pointed the FBI toward Indigenous activist and actor Dallas Goldtooth, saying that “he’s the ring leader making this violent,” according to an email an attorney described.

Throughout the protests, federal law enforcement officials pushed to obtain more resources to police the anti-pipeline movement. Perry wanted drones that could zoom in on faces and license plates, and O’Connell thought the FBI should investigate crowd-sourced funding, which could have ties to North Korea, he claimed in his deposition. Both requests were denied.

O’Connell clarified that he was more concerned about China or Russia than North Korea, and it was not just state actors that worried him. “If somebody like George Soros or some of these other well-heeled activists are trying to disrupt things in my turf, I want to know what’s going on,” he explained, referring to the billionaire philanthropist, who conspiracists theorize controls progressive causes.

To the federal law enforcement officials working on the ground at Standing Rock, there was no reason they shouldn’t be able to use all the resources at the federal government’s disposal to confront this latest Indigenous uprising.

“That shit should have been crushed like immediately,” O’Connell said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline FBI sent several informants to Standing Rock protests, court documents show on Mar 15, 2024.

Toxic Terrain

Post-Roe, North Dakota puts resources into alternatives to abortion

North Dakota this year adopted one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, with narrow exceptions for rape and incest victims in the first six weeks of pregnancy and to save the life of the mother.

Although abortions-rights advocates haven’t given up the fight, abortion opponents are moving ahead with the restrictions and placing a heavier emphasis on supporting new mothers through legislation and services, such as maternity homes for pregnant women and teens.

Molly Richards, 17, hugs her son, Bernard. Richards lives at the Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home, which provides services to pregnant people. (Photo courtesy of Molly Richards)

One of those teens is Molly Richards, who was just 13 years old when she learned she was pregnant.

She remembers feeling both “excited and oblivious” when she got the results at a clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where she grew up. The community is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, of which Richards, now 17, is a citizen.

“It was a very happy time for me,” she recalled.

Then the reality of carrying and raising a child began to sink in. But Richards didn’t view abortion as an option.

“Abortion was not on my mind. That was a big no-no for me.”

Seeking resources, Richards and her family connected with Mary Pat Jahner, director of Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home in the small, unincorporated community of Warsaw.

The picturesque brick home – four stories tall and trimmed with ornate gold crosses – is an institution within the North Dakota anti-abortion movement.

Originally a convent for nuns and a boarding school, the home now serves young pregnant women – most from nearby Native American reservations. In addition to food and shelter, the facility provides counseling services, help completing high school, clothing, job training and parenting classes to mothers.

The facility houses two to four residents at a time. Richards was four months into her pregnancy when she arrived at the home.

“Our main purpose is just to provide a choice for moms who …might need a place to stay or might need a family,” Jahner said. “Most of the moms don’t have a safe place to be, they might be living couch to couch. They’re not living on the street per se, but they might not have their own place to call home.”

Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home, seen here on July 6, 2023, is an institution within the North Dakota anti-abortion movement. Located in Warsaw, the facility was originally a convent for nuns and a boarding school. It now serves young pregnant women. (Trilce Estrada Olvera, News21)

With abortions essentially unavailable in the state, where religion is deeply ingrained and diverse, efforts to support mothers and their children have taken on new prominence.

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022 and returned abortion decisions to the states, researchers predicted the number of births would increase, as would the need to support pregnant people, young mothers and their children.

An analysis by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimates that nearly 9,800 additional live births occurred in Texas from April 2022 through December 2022 after a six-week abortion ban took effect in that state in fall 2021.

The federal Congressional Budget Office has said it anticipates an increase in births because of the end of Roe but that contraceptive use and other abortion methods, such as medication abortion, will largely offset that increase.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, doesn’t think the United States is prepared for an influx of births – and that policies nationwide aren’t doing enough.

“We are right now not a family friendly country. We may be pro-life, but we’re not pro-family. And if you’re going to make decisions that put more babies into the market, we need to support those babies,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re pro-Roe or anti-Roe, support children. They’re your future.”

Supporting pregnant people through legislation

State Sen. Sean Cleary, R-Bismarck, has been at the forefront of pushing for additional help for mothers and babies amid North Dakota’s abortion ban.

Sen. Sean Cleary, R-Bismarck, talks in the North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck on July 10, 2023. He pushed for legislation supporting mothers and children. “This topic was definitely top of mind for a lot of folks with the Dobbs decision.” But, he said, “These are all ideas that I would have supported either way.” (Morgan Fischer, News21)
North Dakota this year adopted one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, with narrow exceptions for rape and incest victims in the first six weeks of pregnancy and to save the life of the mother. (Morgan Fischer, News21)

“There was an understanding that women are navigating a very difficult time in their lives, that the state could be doing more to support them and empower them,” Cleary said. “We wanted to be a state that was known for supporting families and supporting mothers.”

Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, signed bills this year to eliminate taxes on diapers; expand Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits for pregnant individuals; and provide additional funding to the state’s “alternatives-to-abortion” program, which gives funds to child-placement agencies, anti-abortion counseling centers and maternity homes – including Gianna & Pietro.

Cleary co-sponsored the diaper tax and Medicaid bills, as well as failed efforts to create a paid family leave program, a tax credit for child care expenses and a program to increase pay for child care workers.

The 31-year-old said being a father helped him see the need for this type of legislation. He has a toddler and another child on the way.

“Families can’t afford to send their kids to child care, and the workers can’t afford to work there,” he said.

Abortion-rights activists doubt the effectiveness of the few measures that made it through the Legislature.

“None of them are actually adequate to address fully supporting a pregnant person bringing a child into the world and raising a child to adulthood,” said Cody Schuler, advocacy manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota.

“If you’re going to have a near-total ban on abortion and you’re going to force people to carry pregnancy to term, you have to do more than give a tax break for diapers.”

Katie Christensen, North Dakota state director for Planned Parenthood, emphasized the problematic funding of the alternatives-to-abortion program.

Katie Christensen is the North Dakota state director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood North Central States. Though Planned Parenthood does not provide abortions in North Dakota, it is part of an abortion-rights coalition in the state. (Trilce Estrada Olvera, News21)

Christensen has criticized the program for providing $1 million in state funds to mostly religious ministries with little to no government oversight. State funding for so-called “crisis pregnancy centers,” which aim to dissuade people from getting abortions, is especially concerning to abortion-rights advocates.

There are at least seven such centers in the state, according to the Crisis Pregnancy Center Map, which provides nationwide tracking of these facilities and is maintained by University of Georgia professors.

“We’re putting thousands of public dollars into programming that aims to seek out people who want abortions and try to persuade them away from that,” Christensen said. “They’re still allowed to promote their religion while using these dollars.”

Despite this criticism, Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, one of only four Democrats in the 47-member state Senate, co-sponsored the alternatives-to-abortion funding bill, claiming that it “sort of became a litmus test between pro-choice and pro-life people.”

Although he supports abortion access, Mathern backed the bill in an attempt to change the tide of Democrats in North Dakota being seen as “the anti-religion and anti-God people and the people who kill babies.”

However, if concerns over these “crisis pregnancy centers” are legitimate, Mathern said, their practices should be evaluated and “the state’s attorney should be investigating.”

‘Small government’ approach to helping mothers

North Dakota’s Legislature meets for 80 days during odd-numbered years only. Legislators, who don’t have staff, work at their desks on the floor of the Senate or House. This model can mean less government funding for programs, something Republican state Sen. Janne Myrdal supports.

Myrdal represents far northeastern North Dakota, where the Gianna & Pietro home is located. She sponsored the state’s strict new abortion ban and co-sponsored the bill that beefed up funding to the state’s alternatives-to-abortion program. She warns that such funding comes with some strings attached.

“If you ask for that much support, then the government’s going to come on top of it and go, ‘We’re going to regulate you,’” Myrdal said. “You can’t pray for people, you can’t hug people, you can’t share Jesus with people who come in, because the government can’t do that.”

Gianna & Pietro, which is a nonprofit organization, receives the majority of its funding – about $500,000 to $600,000 each year – from individual donors, but it also has received funds from the state’s alternatives-to-abortion program.

In this year’s bill, about $100,000 was earmarked for the home; Jahner said the money will go toward updating vehicles and other needs.

In the nearly two decades of the home’s operation, more than 300 people have lived there, and over 100 children have been born as part of the program.

During a recent visit, three women who were either pregnant or young mothers, including Richards, lived at the home. Staff members stay on site, too, to provide support and help.

Jahner, her daughter, whom she adopted from a former resident, and several other children of former residents live on the property, as well, in a two-story home behind Gianna & Pietro.

Molly Richards, 17, feeds Brooklyn, another resident’s baby, on July 5, 2023, at Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home in Warsaw, North Dakota. Richards and other mothers living at the home help care for the children. Richards is in the process of having her own son, Bernard, adopted by a family in southern Minnesota because, “I wanted something more and better for my son,” she said. (Morgan Fischer, News21)

Richards’ initial stay in 2019 only lasted a month. Feeling homesick, she returned to South Dakota to give birth. But after struggling to parent on her own and dropping out of school, Richards returned to Gianna & Pietro over a year and a half ago, with her son, Bernard, in tow.

Richards is now in the process of having her son adopted by a family in southern Minnesota, because, she said, “I wanted something more and better for my son.”

There is a clear religious aspect to Gianna & Pietro. Residents must attend Sunday Mass, take part in nightly prayer and participate in grace before meals. A stained glass chapel is located on the first floor of the home, and delicate religious paintings are scattered throughout. Across the street sits a steepled red brick church where residents may also attend Mass.

The Rev. Joseph Christensen holds Mass inside the Gianna & Pietro maternity home’s chapel on July 6, 2023, in Warsaw, North Dakota. Christensen holds Mass every day for the mothers and staff. (Trilce Estrada Olvera, News21)

Although residents are not required to be Catholic or religious to live at the home, a question about religious preference is included on the admission application form and participation in religious activities is required.

“I didn’t become religious until I actually came here, so my family isn’t religious,” Richards said. “I was baptized (Catholic) a year and a half ago.”

Schuler, of the ACLU, and other abortion-rights advocates worry such religious requirements could lead to “coercing individuals into religion” with the help of government funding.

“When it comes to a maternity home, it’s being operated as a religious ministry. I don’t think state dollars should be paying for that,” Schuler said. “But at the same time, I know that there are individuals who are religious who might be looking for what that center might provide.”

Expansion of reproductive care in Minnesota

With limited capacity in homes like Gianna & Pietro, abortion care across the Red River in neighboring Minnesota remains essential, abortion-rights advocates say.

“The amount of pregnant people who are having their abortions today across the river would fill up those homes fivefold today – unless they’re going to open up huge apartment complexes to house all of these pregnant people,” said Destini Spaeth, board chair of the North Dakota Women in Need Abortion Access Fund.

Abortion is legal in Minnesota up to fetal viability, which is 24 to 26 weeks, and exceptions are granted to save the life or protect the health of the mother. Surrounded by states that have completely banned abortion or are in court fighting to prevent access, Minnesota has become a key state for abortion access in the Upper Midwest.

For nearly 25 years, Red River Women’s Clinic operated in Fargo and was the only abortion clinic in the state for two decades. Every Wednesday, when the clinic was open, protesters gathered with graphic signs outside the front door.

Then last year, after word of the Supreme Court’s likely end to Roe was leaked, its operators began looking for a new location. Last August, they reopened less than 3 miles away – across the river in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Each Wednesday, the clinic provides 25 to 30 abortions up to the 16-week mark of pregnancy. After that time, patients are referred elsewhere for a multiday procedure that the independent clinic lacks capacity for.

Since the move, the clinic has seen its patient load increase 10% to 15%, said Tammi Kromenaker, the facility’s director. And with fewer overall restrictions on abortion care in Minnesota, Kromenaker said she believes access has actually increased for women in North Dakota.

But the fear her patients feel has also gone up, she said.

“Every week, mostly patients from North Dakota will say: ‘Is it even legal for me to come here? Will I get legally prosecuted for this health care?’

Kromenaker continues to fight for abortion rights back across the river in North Dakota. Her clinic is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit over the state’s near-total abortion ban.

“We didn’t want to give up on North Dakota. We didn’t want to leave,” she said. “But our hand was forced.”

News21 reporters Trilce Estrada Olvera and Cassidey Kavathas contributed to this story. 

This report is part of “America After Roe,” an examination of the impact of the reversal of Roe v. Wade on health care, culture, policy and people, produced by Carnegie-Knight News21. For more stories, visit https://americaafterroe.news21.com/.

The post Post-Roe, North Dakota puts resources into alternatives to abortion appeared first on Buffalo’s Fire.

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