Government Contractor's Surveillance of Activists Causes Outrage Across Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania's homeland security office is under fire for hiring a private intelligence firm that monitored the activities of law-abiding, peaceful activist groups.
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 .
Some activists believe Powers should lose his job . "Obviously I'm thrilled that Rendell apologized and everything, but I still think (Powers) needs to be fired," Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition co-founder Dr. Thomas Jiunta told The Citizen's Voice. "For people exercising their right to free speech and opinions about natural gas drilling to be put on the same level as terrorists is not only extreme, but unconscionable."
The next day, ITRR released a vague press release Wednesday defending itself and listing violent actions associated with certain kinds of ideological groups, including environmentalists.
"The mission of the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response is to identify and analyze information that can be leveraged to prevent injury, loss of life and destruction of property," the released states. "At times, that means providing guidance on the potential for deadly actions. At other times, it means providing security personnel guidance regarding staff requirements for crowd control."
Speaking with the Inquirer, ITRR's co-director Michael Perelman said his organization does not spy directly on people."We track events, giving law enforcement a heads up for the potential of disorder," he said. "We don't track people."
But a leaked memo by Homeland Security Director Powers calls into question whether ITRR and the Office of Homeland Security didn't concentrate on monitoring the activities of law-abiding drilling opponents. Released this week after Powers mistakenly e-mailed it to an anti-drilling activist, the memo stated "We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against these same companies," reports The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette .
Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition member Janine Dymond said "The whole picture is so alarming that our government is so in the gas companies' pockets." In an editorial, The Scranton Times Tribune agrees, arguing "Unless Mr. Rendell takes further action, he will leave the impression that the government has become the promoter and protector, rather than the regulator, of the natural gas industry ."
The scandal has led to bipartisan calls from the state legislature for an investigation, hearings, and the release of all ITRR intelligence bulletins from the Rendell administration, the Inquirer reports today. "In private industry, some body's head would roll. This is inexcusable," Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said. "I want to see the contract. I want to see the parameters of the contract. I want to see who signed for the contract."
The seriousness of the intelligence bulletin's disclosure was apparent by Rendell's reactions to it Tuesday night.
"I am deeply embarrassed and I apologize to any of the groups who had this information disseminated on their right to peacefully protest," Rendell said during the press conference, distancing himself from the scandal.
"I am appalled that this contract was entered into without my knowledge," he said. "I am appalled that information was disseminated about groups that were exercising their constitutional right to free speech and to protest. They shouldn't be on any list. This is extraordinarily embarrassing."
Rendell has directed his chief of staff to head a task force to look into the ITRR contract and how the firm was hired.
♦ Screenshot of Pennsylvania Intelligence Bulletin