London’s City Hall is facing questions over its decision to hire a private intelligence firm known for monitoring environmental activists on behalf of fossil fuel companies without competitors being able to bid for the contract.
Welund, a company that identifies “politically-based threats” to its clients, is currently informing the Mayor of London’s operations unit on planned and unplanned protests in the capital. One of Welund’s senior executives has called the green movement an “existential threat” to the energy industry.
The year-long contract, worth £12,000, was signed off by the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) City Operations Unit on 17 March 2020, a document on GLA‘s website uncovered by DeSmog shows. The move followed climate activist group Extinction Rebellion’s fortnight-long autumn protests last year, which in London resulted in 1,828 arrests and 164 charges, and prompted accusations from police monitoring network Netpol of excessive use of force from officers.
Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member, Caroline Pidgeon, told DeSmog that “this is a contract that should not have been awarded without open competition and far more debate.”
“Plenty of information has for a long time been collected by the police about the activities of environmental campaigners. To now discover that the Mayor wants a separate and additional form of intelligence gathering raises a whole range of questions.”
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Welund was launched by a former MI6 special agent in 2007 as a “market-leader in monitoring and identifying politically-based threats to businesses”, according to its LinkedIn page. It has apparently worked on monitoring activists in campaigns notable for violence between protesters and police, including Canada’s Trans-Mountain pipeline.
The company analyses threats posed by activists and offers a subscriber-only intelligence platform that holds a “live archive” of mostly open source data, such as online articles and analysis.
Welund has previously worked with fossil fuel companies such as Shell and Chevron, and provided intelligence on a number of social movements and campaign groups including Greenpeace and Occupy Wall Street, a 2018 investigation by Mother Jones revealed.
The investigation also showed Welund’s North America arm has presented at several energy industry conferences to showcase its unique skill in “understanding the activist threat”. Travis Moran, the firm’s vice president of operations, once described the environmental movement as “an existential threat” when addressing oil and gas executives in Houston, Texas.
Welund’s Twitter account suggests its work with companies concerned about this threat continues, with posts regularly mentioning protests by Extinction Rebellion (XR), accompanied by links to the company’s paywalled platform.
XR spokeswoman Alanna Byrne told DeSmog that City Hall hiring Welund showed “a sinister commitment to protecting business as usual over tackling the climate crisis.”
She welcomed a more open dialogue with City Hall, saying that “if they want to know what we’re up to they just need to pick up the phone. Extinction Rebellion are totally transparent about the work we do and have nothing to hide.”
“We welcome a dialogue with the GLA which might help them save the money. We’ve no doubt their resources must be stretched right now and could be better spent elsewhere,” she said.
Welund’s hiring by City Hall highlights the niche position the company occupies within the private intelligence industry.
Normally, any contract above £10,000 would have to enter a competitive tendering process – but this process was circumvented due to a supposed “complete absence of competition”, records show.
A summary of the decision reads: “Although there are other companies who could be regarded as competitors from a business perspective, this is because they cover similar activities as a part of a wider service monitoring ‘threat’, whilst also providing reporting on Cyber, terrorism and other potentially disruptive activities.”
“Inevitably the coverage of protests is not as extensive, being part of a wider remit and these ‘market’ competitors are also considerably more costly. As City Ops has no requirement for such services, Welund, within the requirements of the unit, is without competition,” it added.
A spokesperson for Mayor of London Sadiq Khan defended the decision to hire Welund, saying it was “vital that the Mayor has the most accurate, current information at his disposal” to keep Londoners informed.”
They continued: “Welund have not been engaged to report on any specific group, theme or cause, but rather to assist in providing information on planned and unplanned protests, in order to keep the Mayor and key stakeholders informed. The information provided by Welund enables the Mayor to communicate with Londoners in relation to protests, events and demonstrations, and to facilitate and coordinate the work of functional bodies as appropriate.”
Welund did not respond to a request for comment.
Main image credit: © Extinction Rebellion. Updated: 23/11/20 : a line was added to the third paragraph to clarify the source of the information.