The Infiltrator: How an Undercover Oil Industry Mercenary Tricked Pipeline Opponents Into Believing He Was One of Them
Jesse Horne still struggles to talk about the day he was kicked out of the anti-Dakota Access pipeline movement. It had been an intense week. Searching for direction and ideological fulfillment ever since Iowa’s stand against the pipeline wound down, the 20-year-old had reconnected with some of the state’s more radical pipeline opponents, and the group was now taking on drone warfare. After a protest outside a drone base in Des Moines in which Horne and several others were arrested, two of his fellow activists, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, sat him down and told him to stay away.
“They were asking me if I was an infiltrator,” Horne told The Intercept. “My response was absolutely not.”
There was a lot Horne says he didn’t know at the time — for one, that Reznicek and Montoya had recently been involved in a series of acts of pipeline sabotage. Between March and May 2017, above-ground valves along the Dakota Access pipeline in Iowa and South Dakota were pierced with welding torches, creating new costs for the pipeline company, Energy Transfer, and sending its security personnel into a frenzy. A few weeks after their conversation with Horne, the two women would claim responsibility for the sabotage.
Another thing Horne says he didn’t know: that someone he considered a “brother in the cause” was indeed an infiltrator. For months, a man calling himself Joel Edwards had posed as a pipeline opponent, attending protests, befriending water protectors, and paying for hotel rooms, supplies, and booze. He told some people he had a job with a hotel that allowed him to travel, others that he was a freelance journalist reporting on the pipeline resistance. But five former contractors for TigerSwan, the secretive security firm hired by Energy Transfer to guard the pipeline, confirmed to The Intercept that Joel was an undercover intelligence operative. His real name was Joel Edward McCollough, and he had been sent to collect information on the protesters, explicitly targeting those who were down on their luck. Horne, who struggled with addiction, appeared to be a perfect target.
McCollough passed along what he learned to his superiors at TigerSwan, who attempted to use the information to thwart protest activity and identify people or plots that represented threats to the pipeline. Traces of his surveillance turned up in TigerSwan’s daily situation reports, which were written for Energy Transfer and at times passed to law enforcement. The former TigerSwan contractors interviewed by The Intercept, who declined to be named because it would threaten their continued work in the industry, had either worked with McCollough directly or knew of him through internal communications.
Like other contractors working for TigerSwan, McCollough had developed the skills he deployed in the Dakota Access pipeline fight during the U.S. war in Iraq, where he served as a Marine Corps interrogator and counterintelligence specialist. TigerSwan was founded by James Reese, a former commander of the elite special operations unit Delta Force, and the company got its start as part of a boom of mercenary security firms in the early years of the war on terror. McCollough was participating in something akin to a massive experiment in U.S. military-trained operatives applying lessons learned fighting insurgencies abroad to thousands of pipeline opponents engaged in protest against a Fortune 500 energy giant at home.
Behind the operation was Energy Transfer, whose pipeline empire has been key to propelling the U.S. oil and gas boom at a moment when the devastating impacts of climate change demand a rapid halt in fossil fuel production. Were the environmental movement able to convince policymakers to take climate science seriously, Energy Transfer would be out of business.
Instead, the business of building oil and gas pipelines is booming. Construction projects approved across at least two dozen states continue to face fierce resistance — including Energy Transfer-owned projects in Louisiana and Pennsylvania — ensuring that the pipeline security business will keep booming too. Although TigerSwan has failed to win many of the new contracts it once aspired to, few clear incentives exist to deter others from reproducing the mercenary firm’s tactics.
Through interviews with more than a dozen water protectors who were approached or befriended by Joel, The Intercept has tracked the TigerSwan operative’s path from Iowa to North Dakota to Illinois as he attempted to infiltrate an array of DAPL-opposed organizations, including Bold Iowa, Mississippi Stand, and Food and Water Watch, between September 2016 and April 2017. McCollough declined to comment for this story. Neither TigerSwan nor Energy Transfer responded to multiple requests for comment.
Horne had accepted rides from Joel, crashed in his hotel room, and the two kept in touch. A small set of water protectors became convinced that, knowingly or unknowingly, Horne was supplying information to Joel.
“It was a really painful experience,” Horne said. “It fell apart in front of me really quickly.”
More than anything, Horne remains bewildered. “I just can’t think of anything that would be so sensitive that would have led to this,” he said. “I’m wondering what he gained from interacting with me at all.”
It was early September 2016 and video footage of private security dogs attacking Indigenous pipeline opponents in North Dakota had spread across social media. What began as a small anti-pipeline resistance composed almost entirely of the Oceti Sakowin people exploded into a massive, multinational social movement.
Over the next few months, thousands of people traveled to the rural Midwest to protest the 1,172-mile pipeline, which would carry oil extracted from North Dakota’s Bakken fracking region through South Dakota and Iowa to a storage facility and transport hub in Illinois. Those who flooded in carried wide-ranging agendas, identities, and levels of experience — from longtime Indigenous and environmental activists to hippies fresh off the festival circuit to veterans and former law enforcement officers who felt called to support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s efforts to protect the Missouri River from the threat of an oil spill. In many ways, the space was primed for infiltration: It was next to impossible to control who showed up.
“I need you guys to start looking at the activists in your area and see if there are individuals who are vulnerable,” Joel McCollough later wrote to a small group of TigerSwan personnel. “They’re broke, always talking about needing gas money or whatever. Maybe they’re disillusioned, depressed a little. Life is fucking them over,” the email continued. “We can buy them a bus ticket to any camp they want if they’re willing to provide intel.”
“We win no matter what. If they agree to inform for pay, we get intel. If they tell our pitchman to go fuck himself/herself, the activist will start wondering who did take the money and it’ll cause conflict within the activist groups and it won’t cost us anything.”
The message was provided to The Intercept by a former TigerSwan contractor. It was sent in May 2017, months after Joel had embedded himself in the anti-pipeline movement. None of the water protectors The Intercept interviewed were aware of instances in which Joel or anyone else had offered explicit bribes for information.
Neither was a former TigerSwan operative who worked on the Dakota Access pipeline contract. Reading the email, though, he shrugged. “It wouldn’t be unreasonable to do something like that. It wouldn’t surprise me or concern me,” he said. “If someone can take a quarter-million in $100 bills and give it to a guy in Ramadi, Iraq, to do something, and that person is working for the government, then why is it a problem to give somebody $200?”
TigerSwan came in after the dog attack to oversee the half-dozen or so companies working security on the pipeline. The firm didn’t get a private security license in North Dakota, an omission over which the state security board would later sue. In the subsequent legal battle, which remains ongoing, TigerSwan has claimed that it simply provided “management and IT consulting.” But two former TigerSwan operatives disputed that characterization. As one of them put it, “TigerSwan had personnel on the front lines doing the exact same things the security guards were.”
The other security companies had varying degrees of autonomy from TigerSwan. Personnel moved between companies, and at times it was unclear who was working for whom. “We had the implants, then we had the mobile teams who took information and followed people around wherever,” one former TigerSwan operative said. Others monitored social media accounts remotely.
For the former TigerSwan contractor who reviewed Joel’s email, the infiltration wasn’t such a big deal. It was the other things that bothered him more, like when a handful of security operatives armed themselves with baseball bats to fend off protesters, or bought paintball guns to shoot down the camera drones that water protectors used to document the protest. He said the weapons weren’t ultimately used, but it was stupid nonetheless. Stupid like when TigerSwan operatives would use the water protectors’ radio signals to exhaust and confuse them — ordering everyone to a location where they’d find nothing happening, or blasting the theme song for the professional wrestler John Cena over the system. “We had a few rogue guys at the highest level at times acting like jackasses, doing stupid stuff, not being professional.”
Another former contractor confirmed activity on the part of the company that seemed to serve no purpose other than to intimidate and stir paranoia. “It was the whispers on the radio at night; it was the lights; it was the helicopter flights at night for no fucking reason. There were strange vehicles that would come up into the camp,” the former operative said. “That wasn’t really the intelligence operation; that was something else.”
The mission was supposed to “have a relaxed defensive posture — to be a good witness and protect the workers if needed, that was our role,” said one of the former contractors. “Some people couldn’t handle how simple and mundane and boring that was.”
“There’s been nothing like this,” he said of the DAPL contract. “People dreamed about making $500 a day stateside just keeping people safe. It was the beginning of something big with all these pipelines getting approved: Keystone, Bayou Bridge, DAPL.”
What he’s certain of is that the glimmer of opportunity he saw at the beginning of the pipeline fight was extinguished when The Intercept published more than 100 TigerSwan situation reports leaked by a former operative, revealing the security firm’s extensive surveillance efforts, coordination with law enforcement, and comparisons of water protectors to jihadi fighters.
“This was the beginning for all of us, not just TigerSwan,” the former contractor reflected. “High-dollar ex-special ops types doing great things in America to keep people safe. They can have a mercenary stigma all they want, 98 percent of those guys I would let babysit my kids.”
He remembers thinking at one time, “If they watch their p’s and q’s, they will be the standard. They’ll be the company that everybody’s gonna use.” The former contractor laughed. “That didn’t happen.”
When Kima Selene met Joel, he didn’t raise suspicion. She noticed his big white boxer before she noticed him. “I really got to know him because he had this awesome dog,” she said. With a joke about how Sully liked Selene more than he liked Joel, a friendly familiarity developed.
Selene had been studying business, sculpture, and aromatherapy in Ohio when a friend told her that she was driving to Standing Rock. Selene went along on a whim. She spent about a month in North Dakota, then responded to a call put out by a group in Iowa called Mississippi Stand looking for water protectors to help block construction of the pipeline across the Mississippi River.
Starting in mid-September, according to Mississippi Stand leader Alex Cohen, Joel seemed to show up to every action held in Iowa. Joel had a big beard and loved Tito’s vodka. He looked “like he could have just popped off a sofa from watching a football game. He had this nice dog, and everyone loves dogs,” said Ed Fallon, the leader of another local anti-pipeline group, Bold Iowa.
Joel never participated in protests that could get him arrested, but Cohen didn’t think much of it. Because of Mississippi Stand’s no-drugs, no-alcohol policy, however, “No one really trusted him,” said Cohen, not because they thought he was an informant, but because of his drinking. When the group’s camp was evicted, they became a convoy — traveling to different construction sites and locking down to infrastructure. They didn’t invite Joel to join them.
But he kept showing up anyway. “He would always message me just wanting to know about anything coming up,” Cohen said. Then, in November, Joel got in touch with an offer. “He called and said, I found a unique way I can help,” Cohen remembers. “I want to find you guys a hotel room once a week so you can shower and do whatever.”
Joel had identified a vulnerability among Mississippi Stand members that would allow him to insert himself into some of their intimate conversations. “We were doing a direct-action campaign. We were all camping, none of us were showering for weeks on end, none of us had the comforts of a bed,” said Joseph Waters, another Mississippi Stand activist. “It was like, yeah, of course we would love to stay in a hotel. We would love to take showers.”
Selene remembers the time she took Joel up on his offer. It was mid-November, and she and another protester had just been released after spending two nights in jail. The group celebrated that night in Joel’s hotel room, where Sully the dog greeted them. “He gave me $50 and told me to go to the liquor store and pick out any alcohol I wanted,” Selene said.
In the hotel room, Mississippi Stand members strategized about how to support Red Warrior Camp, one of the more radical groups at Standing Rock, which was being pressured to leave the area, accused of causing trouble. “We talked specifically about solidarity posts with Red Warrior Camp that a few of us wrote together,” Cohen said.
Their Facebook post ran the next day, stating, “We believe that the only thing that is going to kill this snake is warriors showing up on DAPL easement and refusing to leave until construction is shut down in all four states permanently.”
Sure enough, a day later, the post showed up in an internal situation report that TigerSwan submitted to Energy Transfer. The security firm described the post as “significant because this directly ties MS with the Red Warrior Camp and opens up the possibility of the two groups working together in the future.”
Looking back, Mississippi Stand activists struggled to come up with examples of actions that Joel could have swayed or much of significance he could have learned. But perhaps, mused some participants, it wasn’t the intelligence gathered that made the difference. Waters estimated that the biggest damage Joel might have done was to add alcohol to the mix. “People who show up who want to save the earth, a lot of times they are alcoholics and a lot of times they are recovering,” he said. Joel’s biggest harm might have been in “taking advantage of people most vulnerable to succumb to demons.”
Jesse Horne, a web developer from Macon, Georgia, considered himself an atheist and an anarchist, though he’d never been actively involved in a social movement. The contract tech firm he worked for had placed him in a job at DuPont Pioneer’s research and development headquarters just outside Des Moines, one of the world’s largest developers of genetically modified crops. Horne said that soon after he arrived, he began looking for ways to be involved in local activism and stumbled onto the NoDAPL group Bold Iowa.
Bold Iowa was part of the nationwide Bold Alliance, which got its start in Nebraska fighting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline via alliances between farmers, Indigenous people, and concerned neighbors. Led by Ed Fallon, a former Iowa state representative, Bold Iowa members occasionally participated in actions that got them arrested, but overall, they were less hardcore than Mississippi Stand.
At the first action Horne attended, around 150 protesters blocked workers’ access to the Des Moines River construction site; Horne and 18 others were arrested. “After that whole experience was done, I couldn’t focus on my job anymore,” he recalls. “I wanted to have an action every day because it was like I am actually doing something.”
When Bold Iowa members began to discuss opening a camp, Horne decided that he would quit his job. “It was irresponsible, but I also knew that I had to do it,” he said.
Although Horne said he was never involved in any action to sabotage property, he sympathized with the impulse. “I was completely OK with the idea of someone disabling the hardware that constructed the pipeline,” he said. “It seemed to be more efficient than holding a sign in front of a random building in the heart of downtown Des Moines for an hour.”
It was a point of debate — and at times, contention — among many of the water protector groups, because crossing the line into physically disabling machinery had more serious political and legal consequences, allowing the oil and gas industry and politicians to frame the movement as supportive of “eco-terrorism.”
Heather Pearson, another Bold Iowa activist, recalls that Horne tended to push to take actions to another level. During a protest at a construction site, he ran up a pile of dirt and was tackled to the ground and arrested, something that, according to Pearson, was not part of the plan. His impulsiveness and enthusiasm made him easy to imagine as a provocateur.
Horne doesn’t remember exactly when he first met Joel, only that he was around a lot at the Bold Iowa actions. After the group’s camp closed down, Horne got a ride with Joel 10 hours to North Dakota to visit Standing Rock. A TigerSwan situation report at the time noted, “Jesse Horne traveling to ND this weekend.”
“You can’t fight a 2,000-man force without knowing what they’re thinking. You can’t win without knowing what your enemy is thinking.”
According to one former TigerSwan contractor, a large web board in Iowa displayed the names and pictures of some 60 people the security firm claimed to be tracking, along with their connections to other pipeline opponents. One of the targets was Horne, the contractor said.
“Jesse was not with us,” he said. “He was someone Joel worked to exploit regularly.”
Another former operative explained to The Intercept why infiltration made sense for the company. “When you get a bunch of Delta guys together, they want to do a great job,” he said. “They know the value of intel, so if there’s no law preventing you from getting a few people to act like hippies and go in there and find out what they can, they would be negligent not to do it.”
But although some TigerSwan operatives had identified the protesters as the enemy, others were seeing bad actors among their own ranks. According to three former TigerSwan operatives, the security companies were squabbling too. It’s not clear exactly what complaint fueled it, but bubbling discord developed the way it often does — into a leak of information.
In March 2017, Pearson received a strange Facebook message from an account named “Burt Maklin,” a reference to the FBI agent alter ego of a “Parks and Recreation” character. “Heather you don’t know me (and this is a fake FB obviously), but [I] know who the Iowa mole was from the pipeline. I do not want you to do anything for me, I do not want information from you.” Maklin sent a link to a columnist’s bio on the news website Military 1. It was J.E. McCollough: Joel.
“Thank you. I recognize him,” Pearson replied.
“Good luck. Stay safe,” Maklin wrote.
Pearson began quietly warning members of the movement.
Months later, after The Intercept published TigerSwan’s situation reports and Pearson read the note about Horne traveling to North Dakota, she reached out to Cohen. She was convinced that Horne, having spent so much time with Joel, and given his proclivity to push things to another level, was an infiltrator. They should disassociate from him immediately. It was decided that, even if Horne wasn’t intentionally providing information, his struggle with addiction was reason enough to ask him to leave.
Tala Ali met Joel in the depths of winter at the Prairie Knights Casino in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. She had been staying at the Oceti Sakowin resistance camp since the day of the dog attack, returning home to Cincinnati occasionally to check in on her life.
Ali is Palestinian-American and was taught from a young age that Native Americans were going through a parallel oppression to that of her own people. “Especially being here of Palestinian blood, not having the right of return and feeling really impotent,” she remembers thinking, “how can I not be involved with this?”
December was a strange time. Donald Trump was the president-elect, and it was all but assured that the pipeline would get the approvals it needed to resume construction once he was sworn in. After a blizzard ravaged the camp, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe urged everyone to go home for their own safety. It was less clear than ever where things were going.
And it was cold as hell. At times, everything was so frozen in the camps that it was impossible to find water for drinking or washing up. The casino, just 10 minutes away, was an important resource for water protectors. Ali would go a few times a week to charge her phone and warm up or grab a bite to eat. On rare occasions, she would get a hotel room for a night.
This was one of those bitterly cold nights. Ali arrived at the casino with a friend from Cincinnati, Jen Mendoza, and headed to what was known as “the pit,” where there were tables and a bar in the midst of the flashing slot machines. Joel sauntered over. “You’re cold, you’re hungry, you’re dirty — at that point, you’re putty in his hands,” Ali recalled feeling at the time. “There’s this huge smile, and come sit at my table, and can I talk to you, and how are you?”
After their first encounter with Joel, Mendoza and Ali became aware that he was a fixture at the bar. Occasionally, he would also make appearances at the resistance encampment. Terrill Goodman, a member of the Navajo Nation from Monument Valley, Utah, remembers seeing Joel at the Oceti Sakowin camp’s sacred fire. He offered Goodman a pack of cigarettes once, which he accepted.
Ali developed a friendly relationship with Joel. He talked with her about his time serving in Iraq, dropping Arabic words he thought she might know. The two debated politics. Mendoza, though, was not a fan. “I’ll be honest — most men creep me out, but he was a particular breed of creep,” she said.
One time, when Mendoza needed to pay her phone bill and couldn’t get the casino Wi-Fi to connect, Joel stepped in. “He was just brazenly like, ‘I’ll take care of that for you,’” she recalled. The way he threw money around weirded her out, but she accepted, thinking, “Yeah, pay my phone bill, dude that creeps me out and I’m definitely never gonna see again.”
Eventually, Mendoza confronted Joel about where all his money came from, and his answer was vague. He had received some kind of military settlement, she said.
One of the most high-profile AIM infiltrators was Douglass Durham, who presented himself at Wounded Knee as a journalist for a regional publication. He grew to become AIM’s director of security and worked with the organization’s legal team. Later, he admitted that the FBI had paid him $1,000 per month to inform on the group’s activities.
By that December at Standing Rock, “Literally everyone was suspicious of everyone,” Mendoza said. “It was infuriating and debilitating for the movement — it really was. I hate to admit that, because it’s almost an admission of defeat that their tactics are so good that it worked, but no one trusted anyone — family members, people that grew up together, people that had been together since day one.”
In the story Joel told 20-year-old Daniel Younan, a friend of Mendoza’s and Ali’s, he was a reporter working on a story about Standing Rock, and his publication was paying for his hotel room and other expenses.
One day, Joel invited Younan to smoke weed outside of the casino. Once Younan was stoned, Joel asked if he’d like to join some friends in his room for drinks. Younan accepted the invitation. But when they got there, “His room is empty,” Younan said. “It’s just him and his dog, and he pulls out his laptop.”
Journalists and documentarians were everywhere at the time. “Every time you’d go into the food hall, everyone would be sitting there interviewing each other or writing,” Younan said. Some were working for established publications like Al Jazeera, but others were working on zines or blogs, something Younan viewed as a positive thing. But this felt different. “I should have stood up and walked out,” Younan acknowledges now, but because Joel had given him free weed, he felt “this weird obligation.”
Many of Joel’s questions revolved around the controversial Red Warrior Camp. Joel wanted to know whether Younan “had ever been to their headquarters and if there were any drugs or guns there.” Younan said no. He found the questions about drugs particularly bizarre considering they had just smoked weed together. McCollough declined to comment on Younan’s recollection, although Ali remembered Younan describing Joel offering him weed and alcohol around the time of the incident.
Joel repeated the reporter act with Mendoza and Ali, and that’s when their relationship with him soured. Stories had emerged of women being sexually assaulted at Standing Rock, and Joel said he was working on a news story to expose the sex offenders and people with criminal records who were staying in camp. He asked Ali and Mendoza to share the names of women who’d been sexually assaulted.
Ali was uncomfortable. She described to him how camp medics, a security team, and a women’s council dealt with reports on a case-by-case basis. Joel argued that this wasn’t sufficient and an exposé was necessary.
Mendoza was even more irate. “It was like, first of all, you’re a slimeball dude,” she said. “You are not some ally of women. Secondly, no, what permission do you have to gain this access to these women’s stories?”
Although Ali and Mendoza continued to run into Joel up until the camps were evicted by police, they distanced themselves.
Joshua Smith hardly knew Joel when Joel texted him with a proposition. “Hey, man, I got some footage you might like. I took my drone down to Patoka,” Joel wrote, referring to the endpoint of the pipeline in Illinois.
“Law enforcement will freak out on whoever posts it,” he continued. “You know anyone who would want to do that? I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, I just would love for it to be out there for the movement.”
Smith had been laid off from construction work when the protests in Iowa kicked off. He had a side gig as a wedding photographer, so when a friend began visiting the protest sites, Smith tagged along to take photos. Eventually he was going every day so he wouldn’t miss a good shot. Inevitably he ran into Joel, but it wasn’t until April, months after the protests had died down, that Joel struck up a conversation on Facebook after Smith posted a meme illustrating the difference between equity and equality. The two discussed philosophies of human rights in the comments, and Joel texted Smith about the drone footage the same day.
Smith attempted to instruct Joel on how to post the video on Facebook anonymously, but Joel demurred. “Man … tell you what, I’ll drive to you tomorrow and just give it to you. Do with it as you will.” He added, “I’ve had bad run-ins with law enforcement before. I don’t need anything more. and I know DAPL will have their dogs out.”
Smith agreed to meet. “I liked the guy,” he said. “It’s hard to run into people that have good conversation.”
In the footage Joel showed him, the drone pans over a field of white tanks, apparently filled with oil awaiting transport. “I didn’t think it was all that compelling or even that anyone was going to care,” Smith said. “It could be any tank farm anywhere in the United States.” Still, he hesitated to agree to post it. It was footage of so-called critical infrastructure, and Smith wasn’t sure that he’d be any more protected from legal consequences than Joel.
Joel let it go and the two talked for a few hours. They were both military veterans and shared an easy rapport. They made plans to go to a climate march in Chicago later that month. Finally, when it was time to leave, Joel left the footage behind, telling Smith that he could post it or not post it.
As the climate march got closer, Smith mentioned to Joel that he’d need a place to crash if he were to come. “Of course!” Joel replied. “Only if you post the Patoka video, though, hahah!”
It was obviously a joke, but at the end of the day, Smith didn’t think the footage was such a big deal. Before he left to meet Joel at the march, he posted it on Facebook.
Preparations for the climate march had just kicked off when Ashley Williams, a volunteer with Food and Water Watch, received a strange message on Facebook from a guy named “Bobby Long.”
“Ashley, if you are currently working with a Joel or JE McCollough, I would recommend breaking contact with them as they work for DAPL,” the message said, adding, “(obviously my profile is fake).”
The message was weird. Wracking her brain, she couldn’t place the name Joel. But the possibility of an infiltrator wasn’t new to Williams. “I think it’s just part of this line of work to anticipate that there’s someone waiting in the wings quietly as a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she said. “You also think, Is this just my paranoia?”
Jenya Polozova, another Food and Water Watch volunteer, received a similar message. So did the organization’s Midwest region director, Jessica Fujan. According to Fujan, the person behind the sock puppet account said he knew about Joel because he too worked for TigerSwan. The three women agreed to keep an eye out.
Ten days later, Williams spotted him at a screening at Loyola University: a large man sitting in the back of the room — obviously a Marine, she thought. She and Polozova had organized the screening — of a Viceland series that included episodes on the Dakota Access pipeline — not as part of Food and Water Watch, but as politically active students of the university.
She’d met Joel before, she realized, at a climate march kickoff event, where she was stationed at an information table. Joel had hovered for a while, talking to Williams about the march and the frac sand mining community where she grew up.
“He came to almost every single event we put on,” Fujan said, whether the event was in downtown Chicago or deep in the suburbs. He even showed up twice to the same social media training, in two different locations.
Polozova became more conscious of how she talked about her environmental advocacy work. “I would run what I was going to say through my head and think, Is this something that could be used against this campaign?” she said. “I wasn’t getting paid. It was something a bunch of college kids are passionate about. It felt kind of predatory.”
The purpose of the situation reports offers a clue to McCollough’s interest in Food and Water Watch. According to a former TigerSwan contractor who worked on DAPL, “There was pressure from the highest levels to make sure that those reports didn’t make it look like there was no reason to have security. If you put at the bottom or the top of your report that there is little to no threat, you’re basically saying that you don’t need us.”
The reports were apparently meant to communicate to Energy Transfer both that there was a serious threat and that TigerSwan was making a dent in addressing it. That April, both those premises were in question. Overall, anti-DAPL activity had died down significantly since the previous fall. As promised, Trump issued an order within days of his inauguration to expedite approval of the pipeline, and construction was nearly complete. The North Dakota resistance camps had been evicted by police, and Mississippi Stand was no longer active.
There was one thing, though, that kept the contract going. Starting in mid-March, saboteurs had snaked down the pipeline, piercing valves with some type of welding torch. The damage to Energy Transfer’s property was not a good look for the security firm, but it was also the thing keeping so many operatives working. In its reports, TigerSwan described its efforts to find the culprits. Some passages also hinted at the possibility of future vandalism, including at the Illinois Patoka terminal — something that never materialized.
On the day of the climate march, Joel’s tank farm footage was described in a TigerSwan situation report. “Drone footage from the Patoka storage facility was recently published on an activist photographer’s webpage,” the document said, referring to Smith.
Joel showed up to the march with three people carrying nice cameras, whom he described to Fujan as veterans. They spent the day with the organizers and joined them at a restaurant afterward. “He asked about what’s next and talked about us working together,” Fujan recalled. It was time to end this, she felt.
She pulled Joel aside. “I explained that we had heard that he was affiliated with TigerSwan, and I didn’t want him to come around anymore,” she said.
“He just kind of laughed it off awkwardly and was like, ‘You’re kidding, that’s crazy.’ I told him that I knew his real name and … it was creepy that he didn’t use his real name,” said Fujan. She turned away to settle the bill, and Joel faded out of the Chicago activist scene.
About a month later, Joel sent Fujan one last Facebook message. “It sucks not being able to work with ya’ll. I have zero desire to be judged and viewed with suspicion by your people. That said, I really like you. You’re an incredibly fresh, vibrant, beautiful soul. If you ever need my help on a personal basis, hit me up! If I had worked with ya’ll longer I would have wanted to expand your outreach to veterans.”
He remembers an exhilarating day. “Oh my god — I was stoked. I get to sit here with the actual organizers, spend all day with them — I don’t have that kind of access,” Smith said. These were the types of contacts that would allow him to take pictures that mattered.
Joel explained to Smith that the hotel he worked for would cover the cost of their room, all their meals, even parking. “We spent a lot of time in the hotel room having a good time. We had time to sit down and have good conversations,” Smith said. They discussed the movement and exchanged war stories.
“He drank a lot. To describe it as excessive is an understatement,” Smith said. “There was a hard edge to him, but any combat veteran’s got a hard edge, and that’s the way it is.”
One of the things Joel wanted to talk about most was Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek. The reports of pipeline valves being pierced had surfaced soon after the women went quiet on social media, and Joel was worried that the duo could be behind it. Smith had wondered too.
Reznicek had a reputation for being what Smith called “committed.” She was willing to do lockdowns. She had conducted an anti-DAPL hunger strike. But Montoya’s tactics seemed more measured.
Joel “was very, very concerned that Ruby had gotten in over her head,” Smith said. “He wouldn’t leave it alone. It was, ‘Who do you know that I can talk to that would know where Ruby is?’”
Smith wrote it off. “I thought he had an infatuation with her,” Smith said. “Ruby has that effect on people. She’s really personable; she’s easy to like.”
Joel kept at it even after parting ways with Smith, texting again two days after the march when another report emerged of a valve being sabotaged.
By then, Smith was tired of the conversation. Whatever Montoya was up to, Smith wanted nothing to do with it. “It’s possible,” he told Joel in a text, “but from my vantage point I don’t know them well enough.”
In the months that followed, as The Intercept published a series of articles based on TigerSwan’s situation reports, rumors started circulating about the identities of the infiltrators who had gathered the intelligence. Seeing reference after reference to Food and Water Watch’s planning meetings, Fujan became more convinced than ever that the sock puppet Facebook account was telling the truth about Joel, and she was pissed.
In June 2017, she sent a letter to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “Given your role in ‘protecting the public interest of the state and its people,’” she wrote, “we believe that you should launch an investigation into TigerSwan’s activities in the state.” According to Fujan, Madigan declined. Madigan’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
To Fujan, the infiltration represented the lengths to which the oil and gas industry would go to protect its profits. In an era in which a growing body of scientific evidence prescribes a dramatic reduction in the burning of fossil fuels to stave off a nightmare climate scenario, the government’s unwillingness to protect her environmental nonprofit from subterfuge by a $4 billion corporation laid bare the soaring advantage the industry held against citizens fighting for a livable future.
“When you do this work, you see that the power of the oil and gas industry and monied industries like this is unconquerable,” Fujan said. “They could sue our organization out of existence. They could sue me personally into dire financial straits, and it’s unreasonable to me that we should be incurring that kind of risk for truth-telling.”
Reflecting on his friendship with Joel Edwards, Smith said he could imagine an alternate reality in which he was in Joel McCollough’s place. After he left the military, he considered going into mercenary work. “I thought about putting in applications with Blackwater, Triple Canopy. The money is just insane,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, I thought, that’s not me anymore.”
In fact, Joel McCollough isn’t all that different from Joel Edwards. As he told many water protectors, McCollough is a former Marine and served in Iraq. It’s also true that he’s a writer. In 2015, he published a book of poetry, called “Aftermath.” One of his most vivid poems describes a gruesome aspect of his military service.
I should have killed him,
Finished it with a knee on his throat,
or a bullet.
Instead I crouched over him
As he lay quietly gurgling in the sand
And went through his pockets
Looking for maps and rosters.
McCollough described his work in prose too. His essays and analysis have been published on veterans’ sites like SOFREP, Ranger Up, Military 1, and Time magazine’s Battleland. “As a Marine Corps counterintelligence specialist and interrogator in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, I had the opportunity to not just fight the enemy, but become intimately familiar with him,” McCollough wrote for Time in 2013. “After conducting more than 400 interrogations as well as working with Iraqi informants, I’ve had the opportunity to see the enemy as he is, a human being with a range of motivations, loyalties and ideologies. I discovered the enemy isn’t crazy, or immoral, or twisted, though his reasoning may be alien to the Western understanding of sanity and morality.”
According to one of his pieces, intelligence McCollough collected in Iraq led to the rescue of seven U.S. prisoners of war. His military records confirm that he was awarded a Purple Heart.
More than anything, McCollough’s writing reveals an understanding of the world that is indelibly shaped by combat.
As McCollough wrote, “There is a sign that has hung in hundreds of infantry headquarters in Iraq and Afghanistan. It says, ‘Complacency Kills.’ Every patrol that would go out would see that sign and be reminded — as if the blood of their brothers wasn’t reminder enough — to be vigilant.”
“I feel bad for the guy,” Smith said. “That is a private military organization operating domestically with no constitutional concerns. The federal government created Joel.”
When Smith got a warning about Joel, he didn’t take it too seriously. He texted Joel.
“I’ve heard it before. Whatever. I’m sure you’ve heard you’re a suspect, too,” Joel responded. He was right. Mississippi Stand organizers had told Smith that at first, they suspected that he might be an infiltrator. “Because of my military background and because I was holding myself aloof,” he said. Smith conceded Joel’s point, saying that he just wanted to give him the heads-up.
“All I’ve done is help people, paid for plane and bus tickets, let them shower in my room, given people rides to Standing Rock and back,” Joel replied. He texted a week later, pointing to others who had been fingered as possible infiltrators on social media. “It’s fucking absurd. I don’t want to get wrapped up in it.”
He proposed a theory. “In fact, this would be beyond devious, but has anyone checked out who the Intercept is working for? All these leaks from TigerSwan have just fueled people’s accusations against each other. They haven’t done the movement any good at all. That would be one hell of a psyop action by TigerSwan, but you and I both know they could do it.”
Smith and Joel communicated again briefly when Montoya and Reznicek publicly took responsibility for the pipeline sabotage in July 2017 — a decision the two women said they came to after The Intercept contacted them for comment on allegations about their involvement included in TigerSwan documents. (As one former TigerSwan operative put it, “We’d been trying to track them for a long time. They eluded us. Those girls were successful.”)
After that, Smith’s communication with Joel tapered off, but his old friend’s name resurfaced in October of last year in a Facebook post by Bold Iowa’s Heather Pearson. “To the 23 people who are still mutual friends with Joel Edwards, it has been confirmed by many sources that he is a paid infiltrator,” she wrote. Some commenters shrugged off the warning for lack of evidence, including Smith. Joel’s Facebook page came down not long after that.
Alleen Brown is New York-based reporter, focused on environmental justice issues. Prior to joining The Intercept, she worked as an education reporter in Minnesota. Her work has been published by The Nation, In These Times, YES! Magazine, and various Twin Cities publications.