Law-Enforcement Agencies Have Sent 35 Warnings About This Movie
It’s a treacherous time. Russia is on the march. China is on the rise. Mass shootings are an American plague. And, above all, someone made a movie with a scary title.
Rolling Stone has obtained an FBI alert issued earlier this month warning that the fictional film “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” could inspire real-life terrorist attacks on energy infrastructure. The nation’s premier domestic law-enforcement agency’s bulletin was one of at least 35 missives from at least 23 separate federal and state entities — a veritable alphabet soup of angst — issuing dire warnings about a commercial film’s threat to the nation’s fossil-fuel infrastructure. Since its release, there appear to have been zero attacks on the mass network of pipelines that carry oil and natural gas around the country, powering much of American life while also slow-cooking the planet.
“The film has potential to inspire threat actors to target oil and gas infrastructure with explosives or other destructive devices,” says the April 6 bulletin from the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. The bulletin — blasted out to police, government, and others involved in protecting infrastructure — urges personnel to keep an eye out for suspicious activity. Such activity, the FBI wrote, ranged from people attempting to access infrastructure facilities to discrete or unusual use of cameras or video recorders, sketching, or note-taking aimed at learning about infrastructure operations.
What followed was a two-week-old-and-counting deluge of warnings about the danger of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a dramatized, fictional version of a nonfiction book by the same name that was published nearly three years ago.
A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives alert was even more vague. “The consensus amongst law enforcement and the private oil sector is that this film may motivate attacks or disruptions on critical infrastructure throughout the country,” the ATF wrote in a March 21 bulletin that was widely circulated earlier this month and obtained by Rolling Stone. No specifics on those threats were provided. (Earlier this month, The Intercept reported that the Kansas City Regional Fusion Center had sent a warning of its own.)
Infrastructure attacks are real. In January, two men were arrested for a December attack on power substations in Washington state that left thousands without electricity and caused $3 million in damage, according to the Justice Department. But the supposition that someone would be inspired by a fictional film to engage in real-world attacks strains credulity, says a senior U.S. government official involved in protecting pipelines and other infrastructure: “If someone wants to attack a pipeline, they’ll attack a pipeline. They don’t need to be inspired by a movie to do so.”
How to Blow Up a Pipeline does not, in fact, provide instructions on how to blow up a pipeline, as a senior weapons of mass destruction intelligence analyst with Maryland’s state Coordination and Analysis Center’s anti-terrorism division noted in an April 14 email.
“The movie definitely does NOT provide a step-by-step guide to construct a device, it’s much more focused on the radicalization process and why these subjects choose to conduct the attack,” the analyst wrote in a missive titled “How to Blow Up A Pipeline— Movie Review from IED Perspective.”
Of a trip to view the film in Baltimore, the analyst wrote: “I took a bunch of notes (70% chance someone submits a see something/say something tip on me).”
How to Blow Up a Pipeline director Daniel Goldhaber tells Rolling Stone the film is “a work of fiction that addresses one of the real world’s most pressing issues by telling a story about eight characters who believe that destroying an oil pipeline is an act of self-defense. That audiences have so strongly connected with it only demonstrates the gravity of the climate crisis and reinforces our urgent need to address it.”
Goldhaber declined to discuss the slew of law-enforcement agencies warning about the dangers of his film.
The FBI declined to comment on its bulletin about a consumer product whose chief economic function is to bring people within purchasing proximity of high-priced popcorn. “While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, the FBI regularly shares information with our law enforcement partners to assist in protecting the communities they serve,” the agency says in a statement. “The FBI always encourages members of the public to be vigilant and report anything they consider suspicious to law enforcement.”
The film may likely be harmless, but civil-liberties advocates and other experts say telling police nationwide that moviegoers could turn into terrorists might have serious and damaging consequences.
“On the whole, these documents reflect law enforcement’s extremely biased approach to threat assessment, which has chronically under-reported the threat of right-wing violent extremism and focused unnecessarily on environmental movements,” says Jake Wiener, counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research group that advocates for privacy, free speech, and human rights.
“Several documents also fit a long-running pattern of using unrelated instances of far-right violence to justify surveilling and criminalizing left-of-center political organizing,” he says. “This kind of low-quality analysis is common and dangerous because it can prime police to overreact to nonthreatening activities and justify wrongful surveillance.”
A touch of pipeline hagiography creeps into some of the intelligence memos. “The United States pipeline infrastructure is part of the country’s transport system. This system enables the safe movement of extraordinary quantities of energy products to industry and consumers, literally fueling the country’s economy and way of life,” reads a Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center security note.
Some defended the need for the alerts, which were widely circulated via the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence-sharing platform. A senior DHS official said in a statement to Rolling Stone: “Films, books, video productions and their distribution channels are protected by the U.S. Constitution. With certain films and books that seem to promote violence and destruction to our critical infrastructure, we urge that our stakeholder partners practice greater vigilance and action on the tactics, techniques and procedures that we know produce improvements in physical security. What is most important is that we take steps to enhance security posture and continue to monitor conditions for specific and credible threats.”
But Mike German, a fellow with the Brennan Center, said the memos could prompt law-enforcement officers to take overzealous action against environmental groups.
“These reports fit an unfortunate pattern of intelligence products that are designed to raise fears among law-enforcement officials, but provide no useful information for police officers to detect actual threats,” he says. “What reasonable action could a police officer receiving these reports take but to increase surveillance of people and groups that protest the oil-and-gas industry?
“The FBI has responsibility for investigating environmental crimes, but too often sees itself as the protector of industry rather than protector of the public interest,” German continues. “The FBI and ATF should use their resources to solve actual crimes, not to monitor what movies are available.”
Trump-Nominated Judge Will Now Oversee Disney-DeSantis Lawsuit
- Financial Conflict