Furor builds over 'anti-terror' bulletins

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

HARRISBURG -- The "anti-terrorism" bulletins circulated by the state Office of Homeland Security continued to spawn a furor at the Capitol Monday, with civil liberties lawyers filing requests for all bulletin-related records, a senator demanding the Homeland Security chief be canned and another setting a hearing into the state's six-figure contract with a Philadelphia anti-terror institute.

Gov. Ed Rendell's office released the bulletins from the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response on Friday. But Witold "Vic" Walczak, state legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he wants more information, including a list of exactly who received the bulletins.

The controversial security bulletins ostensibly warned of potential, credible threats to the state's "critical infrastructure," but also included information about which groups were planning peaceful protests and demonstrations on various subjects.

Many of the bulletins included information about protests by groups that are worried about environmental damage from the ongoing boom in drilling for natural gas in the state's plentiful areas of Marcellus Shale. The alerts were sent to state and local law enforcement officials and at least one energy-company lobbyist.

Mr. Walczak wants to know who else received them. He also wants to know the precise source of the $103,000 that was paid to the agency, a nonprofit group based in Philadelphia and Israel that provided the bulletins under a state contract.

"The Pennsylvania surveillance program was based on the un-American notion that dissent equals danger," Mr. Walczak said. "This is an egregious abuse of governmental power."

Also Monday, state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, spent 15 minutes on the Senate floor denouncing the deal with the anti-terrorism institute, calling it "the biggest scam I've ever seen" and saying the information the state paid $103,000 for was easily available on the Internet for free.

Mr. Ferlo said that state Homeland Security Director James Powers Jr. "should be fired. This gentleman needs to go. He is the point person. This is reprehensible."

The senator said he also will ask the federal Justice Department and inspector general to investigate the matter.

Mr. Rendell has refused to fire Mr. Powers, saying a number of state officials, not just one, were to blame in the handling of the anti-terrorism contract. The institute's one-year contract was due to expire next month, but Mr. Rendell pulled the plug last week after learning about the bulletins -- for the first time, he said -- from a Harrisburg newspaper.

Meanwhile, Michael Perelman, co-director of the institute, issued a statement defending the contract, saying his group "tracks events, giving law enforcement a heads-up for the potential of disorder." The institute "does not track people," he said.

"There is no 'terror list,' " he added. "ITRR does not follow people, conduct surveillance, photograph or record individuals." He said his agency "respects all groups' constitutional rights regarding free speech and assembly" and "operates within the scope of the law."

He said his firm's clients "range from Fortune 100 companies to companies protecting the world's critical infrastructure."

Nonetheless, state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, head of the Senate's Veterans Affairs and Emergency Response Committee, said she'll hold a hearing Monday "to dig more deeply into the controversial, no-bid contract" with the agency. Luzerne County is an active area for gas drilling. Her committee oversees homeland security matters.

She said that people and groups whose names appeared in the institute's bulletins "were targeted for no reason other than they were exercising their fundamental right of free speech and assembly," she said.

"Beyond that, there seems no justification for sharing this kind of information with the private businesses that received it," she said, adding that many people are "very angry about what appears to be a serious abuse of government power."

The ACLU filed its information requests with the state police and the state Office of Homeland Security. The ACLU also posted right-to-know templates on its website that others can use to file their own information requests.

The anti-terror bulletins came to light after Mr. Powers erroneously sent an e-mail memo to Virginia Cody of Wyoming County, an anti-drilling activist that Mr. Powers mistakenly believed was pro-drilling. The memo was later leaked to news organizations.

"We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies," Mr. Powers said in the memo.


Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141. Bureau Chief Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here