|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.