Private security firms hired by major corporations or corporations themselves have spied on environmental and labor groups, according to recent news investigations. A number of the groups targeted -- as well as the companies that targeted them -- are in the South.

In an article published Friday at MotherJones.com, reporter James Ridgeway documents how a private security firm called Beckett Brown International, later S2i, spied on a number of environmental organizations from the late 1990s through at least 2000. Among the corporations that used the services of the Maryland-based security outfit, which was founded and managed by former Secret Service officers, were Wal-Mart of Bentonville, Ark.; Monsanto, which has locations across the South; and Halliburton, the Texas firm formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. BBI also worked for public-relations firms representing clients embroiled in environmental controversies.

Among BBI's primary tactics were snooping through the trash of its targets and hiring paid operatives to infiltrate groups. One of the groups it infiltrated in the late 1990s was Louisiana's Calcasieu League for Environmental Action Now (CLEAN), which at the time was working with Greenpeace in the heavily polluted part of the state known as "Cancer Alley":

In 1998, according to BBI emails, correspondence, and records, BBI retained Mary Lou Sapone, a self-described "research consultant," who recruited a paid operative in Louisiana to infiltrate an environmental group called CLEAN. Sapone had something of a talent for infiltrating activist groups. In the late 1980s, working for a security firm called Perceptions International, which was, in turn, working for the U.S. Surgical Corporation, she penetrated a Connecticut-based animal-rights group, gathering evidence on an activist who would later serve jail time for planting a pipe bomb near the parking space of the company's CEO. The activist would eventually accused Sapone of coaxing her into the plot.

Sapone's operative in Louisiana relayed to her information on what the local enviros were planning, provided gossip on the internal rivalries, and identified the scientists aiding the groups. She passed the intelligence to BBI. In an August 20, 1998 "client briefing," BBI boasted that "our operative is being nominated to the citizen action panels for local industries" and it asked which local industry Condea Vista, the chemical manufacturing firm, would prefer the operative to focus on. (The previous year, Condea Vista had lost a lawsuit brought by the residents of Lake Charles, Louisiana, against the company for the 1994 ethylene dichloride leak and had been slapped with a $7 million judgment.) Another BBI document noted, "The operative has been trained to be inquiring, but not participatory. Operatives are not allowed to offer suggestions or 'help' targets in any way. They are trained to seek documents, ID friends and foe legislators and regulators, follow money trails, ID informants, discover future targets."

CLEAN, which has since disbanded, was a member of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. Marylee Orr, LEAN's executive director, says she wasn't surprised to learn of the infiltration efforts, since her group's office burned to the ground soon after it opened and third-party taps have been detected on its phones. Wilma Subra, a chemist who works with LEAN, had her office broken into repeatedly and her hard drive stolen.

"I'm sorry to say I don't think any of this sounds unusual to me," Orr says. "A lot of our folks feel very paranoid, and you can see why."

BBI disbanded in 2001, but its principals are still operating. One of them now runs a security firm called Chesapeake Strategies, which has protected research facilities from animal-rights activists and in 2005 appeared on a list of Defense Department contractors.

The day after Ridgeway's article about BBI was published, the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press reported that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Student/Farmworker Alliance were targets of an infiltration effort and a series of blog attacks traced to the headquarters of Burger King. The groups have been pressuring fast food firms to pay more for produce in an effort to improve conditions for farmworkers, whose plight is the topic of a Senate Labor Committee hearing scheduled for tomorrow.

The security firm involved in the CIW spying case is Diplomatic Tactical Services of Pembroke Pines, Fla. The company's Web site advertises services include "covert surveillance," "undercover operations" and "investigative activities during strikes."

For more details from the newspaper reporter who broke the story and the Student/Farmworker Alliance coordinator, check out today's interview by the Democracy Now! radio show.