I'm no government threat? Just watch me

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It will be embarrassing if it turns out I've never been considered a "credible threat to critical infrastructure" in Pennsylvania.

I mean the bar has been set pretty low. So low, in fact, that Gov. Ed Rendell revealed this week that he's terminated a state contract with a Philadelphia firm, Paranoia Unlimited.

Actually, the firm is called the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response. For the past year, for a $125,000 fee, it evidently had this simple answer for the question of who is a credible threat:

Who isn't?

Gov. Rendell says the firm told the state Office of Homeland Security about upcoming protests by environmental groups and anti-tax coalitions, gay and lesbian rallies and even a recent Pittsburgh City Council meeting on drilling for natural gas.

You don't need a drill to find gas at a City Council meeting. If anyone's sending spies in there, it should be Sominex seeking breakthroughs in the national battle with insomnia.

Still, people are pretty worked up about this latest waste of taxpayers' money. Jeff Schmidt, of the Sierra Club, said that even if the contract was rescinded it still has "a chilling effect" on the environmental community.

Chilling? Shoot, it should fire people up. It's nice to know that you're important enough to be watched closely, even though you're not.

Evidently, this institute would alert the state Office of Homeland Security -- or should that be Insecurity? -- that there would be a public gathering of concerned citizens somewhere. The state office could then inform local law enforcement agencies of the perceived threat of an imminent gathering of aging hippies or whatever.

I'm no hippie, but I was hoping an occasionally nettlesome columnist might merit concern in high places. Alas, a call to the governor's press office temporarily crushed my hopes of making any security watch list.

"No one was compiling a list of groups," said Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma. "Nor was anyone compiling a list of names of people who attended these kinds of events."

It's true that gatherings perceived as threats against Marcellus Shale gas drillers were shared with industry officials beforehand. Specific events were cited. But no members of the media were being tracked, Mr. Tuma said.

"Maybe the reason we can't find Osama bin Laden is we're too busy spying on Lassie, Mother Nature and granola bars," said Eric Epstein, coordinator of Rock The Capital.

Mr. Epstein not only coordinates that government watchdog group, he chairs the anti-nuclear group TMI Alert. He said he wouldn't know "whether to be hurt, offended or vindicated" if he'd been left off a government watch list.

But he sees us allowing "fear and paranoia to trump openness and reason." He finds it comical that environmentalists are the perceived threats to infrastructure when the nature of Marcellus Shale drilling means damage to roads, massive use of water and the occasional fire.

The Office of Homeland Security appears to be "an information-gathering organization that's unorganized and really not gathering good information," Mr. Epstein said.

(Indeed, Pennsylvanians might be far less concerned with pamphlet-waving activists than with the gas industry spending $5 million on lobbying Harrisburg in the past three years. At $372,000, the biggest recipient is Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett, who coincidentally believes Pennsylvania should remain the only natural gas-producing state without any gas severance tax.)

A rally at the Capitol that featured a 25-foot inflatable pink pig, signifying Harrisburg's largesse, also was identified by the contractor as a potential danger, but Mr. Rendell made a point to say, "The pig wasn't a threat."

Gene Stilp, keeper of said pig, appreciates the governor's apology but doesn't think the administration investigating itself is enough. James Powers, director of state Homeland Security, should be fired and there should be legislative hearings to find out what really happened, Mr. Stilp said.

"How did they monitor e-mail lists? Did they infiltrate the groups? There's a thousand unanswered questions."

On the other hand, he said, "The pink pig is honored to be a practitioner of the First Amendment and be singled out by Homeland Security as a possible threat against the infrastructure."

It appears for now that an inflatable pig has made the cut as a potential menace and I haven't. That's disheartening, but now that I've written this snarky column, maybe someone at the institute will start keeping an eye on me.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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