Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. homeland security secretary who's now an adviser to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, today said Gov. Ed Rendell did the right thing in shutting down a controversial intelligence-gathering program on gas-drilling opponents and other groups.
Mr. Ridge called the program "rather bizarre," and he said gas-industry critics aren't terrorists.
"They have a difference of opinion," said Mr. Ridge, whose consulting groups have a one-year, $900,000 contract with the Cecil-based coalition.
He answered questions about the controversy this afternoon before participating in a panel discussion, also including Mr. Rendell and former Gov. Dick Thornburgh, at the annual conference of the State Science and Technology Institute at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown.
On Tuesday, Mr. Rendell canceled a one-year, $125,000 contract with the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, which was providing the state Office of Homeland Security with intelligence on gas-drilling opponents, plus tax protests and gay-pride activities.
The apologetic governor said he canceled the contract when he found out about it Tuesday. Mr. Rendell said the program was wrong, but he hasn't removed Homeland Security Director James Powers.
Pittsburgh City Councilman and gas-drilling opponent Doug Shields today sought to turn the tables on the intelligence-gatherers, demanding an investigation into the institute. He said he would consult his colleagues about invoking council's authority under the city charter to open its own investigation, which would include calling witnesses.
Mr. Shields said he was up into the wee hours of the morning speaking with gas opponents about the intelligence-gathering program, including some who wondered whether they're on some kind of enemies list.
"Am I on the list?" said Mr. Shields, who also wondered whether the institute's representatives photographed or videotaped him at Frick Park during a recent airing of an anti-drilling documentary.
The institute, which describes itself as a nonprofit group with offices in Philadelphia, was supposed to monitor possible terrorist threats to roads and bridges, but the work morphed into surveillance of protest groups exercising First Amendment rights, Mr. Rendell said Tuesday.
Speaking before the panel discussion today, Mr. Rendell said he doesn't know of any other state agency that had a contract with the institute.
Among other monitoring, the institute sent out an "intelligence bulletin" about a Pittsburgh City Council meeting on gas drilling. It wasn't clear whether the institute monitored the documentary screening.
Mr. Shields, who is sponsoring a bill to ban gas drilling citywide, today described the intelligence-gathering program as "espionage" and demanded that Mr. Powers be fired.
Shutting down the program isn't enough, Mr. Shields said, demanding a probe into who authorized the program and why. He said he wants to know whether the program was the brainchild of a "rogue fool" or something more sinister, such as a joint effort with the gas industry.
"Is this just a bunch of screwballs or is this a concerted effort that went awry?" he said.
Mr. Shields said some industry critics are concerned about an industry-government tie because of Mr. Ridge's previous role as U.S. homeland security secretary. Asked whether he had any role in the contract, Mr. Ridge said, "Hell, no."
He said he's unaware of violent acts by drilling opponents in Pennsylvania, Texas or Oklahoma, all states with vibrant drilling industries. But he said fear, confusion and "mythology" about the industry have created a "heck of a cocktail" of opposition.
Besides a possible city investigation, Mr. Shields suggested that the state hire a special counsel to conduct a separate probe. He said state Attorney General and GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett, who has received campaign contributions from the gas industry, shouldn't be involved.
"Can I have any confidence in the Pennsylvania attorney general's office? Absolutely not," he said.
Mr. Shields called on Mr. Rendell to disclose all documents related to the institute's contract so that residents can see whether they've been "spied upon." If they have, he said, they should have the opportunity to "cleanse" their information from the records.
Told about Mr. Shields' demand today, Mr. Rendell said his administration would respond to individual disclosure requests. "We'd be happy to do that," he said.
In a statement today, Kathryn Klaber, Marcellus Shale coalition president, said:
"Our industry's top priority and most important commitment is to provide our people with the best and safest workplace that we can, and as you'd expect, we take seriously any threats that seek to compromise that environment. Of course, as the issue of responsible Marcellus development has evolved from a technical consideration to a political one, we've started to see an uptick in the volume and intensity of activism. From our point of view, as long as those activities remain generally civil and within the confines of a spirited public debate, there's absolutely no reason for concern. But to the extent they go in the other direction, and potentially devolve in a manner that undermines our ability to keep our folks safe, then we will have a problem."