There have been several news stories over the last few days about a disturbing situation in Pennsylvania. Gov. Ed Rendell has apologized because the state’s homeland security office was gathering and distributing data in its anti-terrorism bulletins about peaceful events (including a candlelight vigil about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and a gay and lesbian festival). The data was gathered by a state contractor, a Philadelphia-based organization called the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response. The Associated Press reported that Rendell called the practice “ludicrous,” and he ordered the termination of the contract with the company.
Rendell has released all 137 bulletins that were provided by this company, which was paid $103,000 by the state. Here’s one of the events listed in Pennsylvania Intelligence Bulletin No. 131, the August 30 bulletin that was the source of the public revelations: “3 September 2010: A screening of the controversial Gasland movie is slated for the Piazza in Northern Liberties (near the Delaware River) in Philadelphia.” Another bulletin warned that there might be “rowdy behavior” from eco-activists in masks and costumes at a rally outside the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Philadelphia office on Halloween. (The Philadelphia Inquirer spotlights some of the bulletins in this story.) The bulletins were sent to law enforcement and private sector companies.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Pennsylvania lawmakers are investigating. “Legislators from both parties sent letters to Rendell Thursday and requested legislative hearings to explore a deal between the state and the Institute of Terrorism Research & Response.” “In private industry, somebody’s head would roll. This is inexcusable,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati told the Inquirer. “I want to see the contract. I want to see the parameters of the contract. I want to see who signed for the contract.”
Unfortunately, legal peaceful protests have been targeted numerous times by law enforcement officials and their proxies, such as this terrorism-intelligence gathering company. Last year, it was revealed that the Maryland state police was monitoring peaceful activists and designating them as terrorists in federal and state databases.
A continuing problem is the mystery surrounding fusion centers — state and local programs to gather domestic intelligence — and the privacy and civil liberty problems associated with them. There’s little information about who is in charge of what and about what exactly is happening in these fusion centers: Who has oversight over these centers? Last year, I wrote about the Missouri Information Analysis Center (”MIAC”) publishing a report (1.7 MB pdf), “The Modern Militia Movement” that deemed as suspicious those individuals who are critical of the Federal Reserve System and income taxes. The MIAC was creating a “dangerous person” profile that includes political affiliation. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and the MIAC soon retracted the report.
Also last year, a report (3.4 MB pdf) was made public from the Virginia Fusion Center (”VFC”) that labeled some university student groups as possible terror threats, stating “University-based students groups are recognized as a radicalization node for almost every type of extremist group.” The list of suspected organizations sweeps political dissension groups up with Al Qa’ida, Hamas, Hizballah, and white supremacists.
Also, a bulletin (pdf) from the North Central Texas Fusion System asked law enforcement officials to report activities by advocacy groups, Muslim civil rights organizations and anti-war protesters so the fusion center can “identify potential underlying trends emerging in the North Central Texas region.” The bulletin lists former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, the US Treasury Department, and others as attempting to “gain support for Islamic goals in the United States and providing an environment for terrorist organizations to flourish.” Many privacy and civil liberties questions remain concerning fusion centers.
The federal government, including the Department of Homeland Security, has a history of surveillance of peaceful protesters. DHS officers have observed and photographed vegans who were peacefully protesting outside a Honey Baked Ham store, and have told library patrons that their legal Internet viewing habits were illegal and demanded to interrogate one individual in particular (the librarian intervened and once police were called, the DHS officers were the ones questioned). The Defense Department admitted it gathered data on anti-war protesters (including peaceful Quakers) and groups opposed to military recruitment activities.
And the most infamous program was the publicly condemned domestic surveillance program, COINTELPRO, in which the FBI abused its investigatory powers to harass and disrupt political opponents. Congressional investigations revealed that the FBI built dossiers on groups suspected of having a Communist ideology even though they had not engaged in crimes, including the NAACP, and the agency burglarized political groups to gather data on them. The program was in effect in the 1950s and 1960s.