A group of protesters pose in front of the Missouri River in Great Falls in May in support of a federal lawsuit against the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Credit: Hunter Pauli / MTFP

The ACLU of Montana on Tuesday sued federal law enforcement, national security, and land management agencies for failing to turn-over documents relating to the government agencies’ preparations for protests related to the Keystone XL pipeline. The ACLU’s national branch is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Earlier this year the civil liberties group began filing requests with the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior and the U.S. Justice Department, along with some state and county agencies, after reviewing a May 2017 report co-authored by Montana Department of Justice counterterrorism officials. The lawsuit said that report conflated indigenous protesters with violent “environmental rights extremists,” and revealed protesters’ free speech rights were being chilled by surveillance.

The tribal government of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation opposes construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in northeast Montana because it crosses the Missouri River just upstream of the intake for the tribes’ $300-million congressionally mandated water treatment plant and distribution network. The water network was built after pollution from oil drilling on the reservation turned much of its drinking water carcinogenic and saltier than the sea.

Documents released by state and county agencies to the ACLU show that federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are coordinating with state and county governments in Montana to oppose protests against the development of Keystone XL.

Montana ACLU legal director Alex Rate said the group had significant success in its right-to-know requests directed at Montana’s state and county governments.

“Unfortunately, on the national side we did not have much success,” Rate said.

According to the ACLU’s lawsuit, the federal agencies the group sought documents from didn’t disclose similar information or indicate the same level of involvement as the state and county records showed. Rate said that led the ACLU to believe the feds weren’t searching hard enough, or were intentionally withholding public information.

The lawsuit also states the federal agencies did not meet the deadline to respond to the ACLU’s appeals for more information, as is required by the federal Freedom of Information Act.

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Rate said the federal agencies’ claims that they don’t have any information to disclose is contradicted by information about those same federal agencies the ACLU already has in its possession.

“What we have right now is a trail of cookie crumbs and we’ve been following the trail for quite a while,” Rate said.

DHS spokesperson Katie Waldman said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation. The departments of Interior, Defense and Justice did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Hunter Pauli is a Seattle-born, Missoula-based freelance investigative reporter and a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.You can follow Hunter on Twitter.