Government Contractor's Surveillance of Activists Causes Outrage Across Pennsylvania

By Matthew Harwood

Pennsylvania's Office of Homeland Security has received a whiplash of criticism from the state's governor, legislators, and press for hiring a private firm to produce intelligence bulletins that critics argue monitored peaceful political activism and dissent to serve the business interests of the natural gas industry.

The controversy began last week when the investigative journalism Web site ProPublica obtained an August 30 intelligence bulletin composed by the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR) for Pennsylvania's Office of Homeland Security. Within the 12-page report, which is distributed to state law enforcement agencies and natural gas stakeholders, ITRR notes the significance of certain calendar days in September, such as the end of Ramadan and the Jewish high holidays, while listing meetings and rallies of anarchist, animal rights, antiwar, and environmental activists.

(For more Security Management coverage of controversial domestic intelligence gathering by state-based fusion centers and private contractors, see here, here, and here.)

The most intensive scrutiny within the report focused on activists who oppose natural gas drilling within Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, which has been called "the Saudi Arabia of natural gas." The report highlights that anti-drilling activists plan on attending local government hearing on gas drilling across the state. The report's authors also report the public showing of the award-winning and controversial documentary, Gasland, which alleges that natural gas drilling has contaminated drinking water supplies and caused serious health problems across the United States.

The intelligence bulletin, furthermore, excerpts an FBI bulletin that warns environmental extremist actions have morphed from threats, trespassing, and vandalism to more serious crimes. Analyzing this trend for its impact on Pennsylvania, the bulletin infers activists and drilling companies could clash in the future.

"Pennsylvania has gained a prominent position in the production of natural gas from drilling operations within the Marcellus Shale Formation," the bulletin states. "Analysts expect that groups of environmental activists and militants on the one hand - and property owners, mining and drilling companies on the other will be focusing their attention on one another in the future months as production increases."

Since the ProPublica report, the state's Office of Homeland Security and ITRR have been engulfed by scandal.

Asked why anti-drilling groups should be monitored by the Office of Homeland Security, State Homeland Security Director James Powers told the Centre Daily Times that five to ten acts of vandalism have targeted the natural gas industry across the state. Powers explained the industry is considered critical infrastructure, which the office is tasked with protecting.

On Tuesday, Governor Ed Rendell terminated ITRR's contract worth $125,000 with the Office of Homeland Security, questioning its value to law enforcement, reports the York Daily Record. According to ITRR's Web site, the organization has an office in Philadelphia and Jerusalem and an emergency number in Washington, D.C. The company has already been paid $103,000 for its services, even though a unit in the state police does similar tracking of security and terrorist threats, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

"I'll tell you, the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, they have a clever gig going," he said Tuesday night at a press conference. "They probably read the newspaper and put this stuff in. . . . It's stunning."

Nevertheless, Rendell said he would not fire Powers or anyone else at the Office of Homeland Security because there was "collective responsibility" for awarding the contract to ITRR, reports the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.


View Recent News (by day)


Beyond Print

SM Online

See all the latest links and resources that supplement the current issue of Security Management magazine.