|Sean Simmers / Patriot-News File|
Pennsylvania made national news in September for all the wrong reasons.
The Patriot-News reported that Pennsylvania’s Office of Homeland Security had been tracking groups engaged in lawful, peaceful protests, including groups opposed to natural gas drilling, peace activists and gay rights groups. An embarrassed Gov. Ed Rendell, who said that he had been unaware of the program until he read the newspaper, issued an immediate order to halt it.
It turns out the homeland security office or its private consultant were doing more than just monitoring law-abiding citizens.
They were comparing environmental activists to Al-Qaeda.
They were tracking down protesters and grilling their parents.
They were seeking a network of citizen spies to combat the security threats they saw in virtually any legal political activity.
And they were feeding their suspicions not only to law enforcement, but to dozens of private businesses from natural gas drillers to The Hershey Co.
Internal e-mails from the Homeland Security office reveal a determined effort to recruit local people receiving its intelligence bulletins — municipal police chiefs, county sheriffs, local emergency management personnel — into its network of citizen spies.
The goal was to get those locals to start feeding information to the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, a private “intelligence” contractor working with the state’s Homeland Security office.
In an e-mail to ITRR in June, former OHS Director James Powers explains, “Thus far, we’ve pushed information to the customer and haven’t actually requested feedback regarding the sites/cities mentioned” in the bulletins.
“We’re not looking for them to dump everything on us that occurs in their jurisdiction,” he writes, “only that which relates to the critical infrastructure. In turn, we’ll provide it to you for the analysts to review and make further findings.”
However, the definition of “critical infrastructure” employed by Powers and ITRR was clearly very broad. The bulletins were, in fact, loaded with information about legal and peaceful activities by activist groups of all political persuasions.
ITRR’S contract expired in October and, following the revelations in September, Rendell ordered it not to be renewed. The governor declined to fire Powers, but Powers resigned a few weeks later.
State lawmakers held a single hearing on the tracking of these groups. Some want more answers.
And while the state’s contract with ITRR was not renewed, the programs continue.
ITRR continues to monitor law-abiding citizens for its corporate clients.
The Pennsylvania State Police is hiring five new analysts for its Criminal Intelligence Center to take over the role of identifying threats to critical infrastructure.
Using the State Police is “a better avenue,” said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, whose own rallies were listed in the intelligence bulletins as a “moderate threat.”
“At the same time, as they move these operations in-house, they need to ensure checks and balances are in place,” he said.
‘Shades of Al-Qaeda’
From the very first page of the very first bulletin published by Homeland Security, ITRR focused not on groups with a clear terrorist agenda such as Islamists or Neo-Nazis, but on political activists.
The contractor argued that even though groups are non-violent, they can conduct “demonstrations and campaigns that can close down a facility and embarrass a company.”
Pennsylvania was ITRR’s only government client. The contractor made the lion’s share of its money serving private corporate clients.
Regular readers of the bulletins could easily begin to view activists as a threat. The bulletins freely mixed references to actual terrorist activity abroad with warnings about the non-violent, lawful activities of Pennsylvania citizens.
A July 30 bulletin that discusses “jihadist threats in France” quoting Al-Qaeda, also warns that natural gas drilling events “may draw unruly crowds.”
The bulletin warns of “flashpoints for confrontations over natural gas drilling” and provides a list of meetings “singled out by anti-drilling activists.” The list includes township supervisors meetings, county commissioners meetings and a possible Pennsylvania Forestry Association meeting in Mechanicsburg.
The bulletins also freely label activist groups to make them sound menacing — sometimes inconsistently.
The July 30 bulletin claims that “areas of significant drilling activity in Pennsylvania have also been the scene of eco-terrorist vandalism to drilling equipment.” It warns local law enforcement agencies to “remain aware of the potential for large, sometimes hostile confrontations between landowners, anti-drilling environmentalist militants and gas drilling employees.”
The very first bulletin mentions a planned training for anti-drilling activists in Ithaca, N.Y. by “The Ruckus Group” — actually the Ruckus Society, founded in 1995 by former Greenpeace activists.
That bulletin says “training provided by the Ruckus Group does not include violent tactics.” However, the next bulletin suddenly changes tack, calling the group a “non-profit entity providing training to anarchists in methods of destroying gas pipelines.”
“They’re not focused on illegal activity — they’re focused on people organizing, and clearly everybody’s in bed with the drilling industry,” said Witold Walczak, legal director for ACLU of Pennsylvania.
“It’s one thing for private industry to hire groups like ITRR to gather information, but for the government to get involved — you’ve got a nasty menage-a-trois going on here and the citizen activists are the ones getting fracked.”
How did the leaders at ITRR view legal political activity? In a May 3 e-mail sent to Powers, ITRR co-founder Mike Perelman writes:
“The Internet is an incredible force multiplier — example: I doubt that the Rainforest Action Network or the Ruckus Group number more than 25 people each. But they have incredible reach, sophistication, and influence on local groups.”
Perelman immediately followed with this description: “Shades of Al Qaeda!”
Powers was suspicious that political activism equaled drug dealing.
On Aug. 25, Powers e-mails Perelman saying, “Somewhere out there is a nexus between the drug traffickers and those criminals desiring to harm us — whether at the local level or organized, home-grown, splinter-cell would-be terrorists. Have our analysts uncovered any indication of drugs and all the protest group activities they’ve been reporting?”
Perelman responds, “I don’t think we’ll see much organized drug activity from the anarchist/eco groups. Not because they’re clean, but because they’re paranoid. They know they’re always one step away from ‘police repression.’¤”
He adds that ITRR had not been looking for connections with the drug world, but, “We could try and tease out some information if we started with a couple PA trafficker names to track and cross reference through our database and live communications.”