Philadelphia firm wrongly targeted activists
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HARRISBURG -- Gov. Ed Rendell has terminated what he called a horribly misguided state contract with a Philadelphia firm that led to wrongful and improper reports being disseminated about environmental groups, tax protesters, people at gay and lesbian rallies and even supporters of more funding for education.
At a news conference Tuesday evening, Mr. Rendell said he hadn't known until Tuesday about a one-year, $125,000 contract between the state Office of Homeland Security and the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response.
"I am appalled that this contract was entered into without my knowledge," he said. "I am appalled that information was disseminated about groups that were exercising their constitutional right to free speech and to protest. They shouldn't be on any list [of possible security threats]. This is extraordinarily embarrassing."
The contract started last October and was due to expire next month. Its original purpose was to inform state police and homeland security officials about "credible threats to critical infrastructure" around the state, meaning potential attempts by terrorists to destroy roads, bridges, buildings, power facilities or other important facilities.
After Sept. 11, 2001, homeland security officials in each state were supposed to work with their counterparts in Washington to be on the lookout for potential security threats and then notify local police and emergency officials to watch out for attacks on infrastructure, Mr. Rendell said.
But somehow things went very wrong, he said, as the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response in Philadelphia began telling state homeland security officials about upcoming protests by environmental groups over drilling for natural gas in areas of Marcellus Shale, or tax protests, or gay/lesbian pride days, or even a "children and youth education rally" in Philadelphia.
One event that was monitored as potentially dangerous was Mr. Rendell's visit to Washington County last week, when he heard from protesters who want a moratorium on gas drilling.
"Were these people terrorists? Of course not," he said. "I disagreed with them about a moratorium, but they were just exercising their constitutional rights to free speech. I was surrounded by a group of them for 35 minutes and I never felt threatened even for a millisecond."
The Philadelphia firm also sent out an "intelligence bulletin" about a recent Pittsburgh City Council meeting on gas drilling.
Councilman Doug Shields said Tuesday night that he's upset that the state "would use my tax dollars to contract with a private security company to spy on me and others with serious concerns related to the unsafe conditions presented with Marcellus Shale.... It is shameful. It is un-American."
Officials of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania welcomed Mr. Rendell's action.
"Governor Rendell's outrage over this incident is a victory for free speech in Pennsylvania," said Andy Hoover, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Simply gathering to discuss or protest a social issue is not only not a crime but is a part of the American ideal of democracy. The governor understands that, and we applaud him for his stance."
Another protest that was identified by the contractor as a possible threat was a rally at the Capitol over taxes, where the "Pink Pig," a 25-foot inflatable pig, was used as a symbol of state spending. "The pig wasn't a threat," Mr. Rendell said.
Another event that was monitored by the Philadelphia firm was a "pride day" for gays and lesbians. "How in the Lord's name could they be considered terrorists?" Mr. Rendell asked.
However, he said that as of now, he won't fire state Homeland Security Director James Powers, who got the information about protests from ITRR and disseminated it to local officials. He said the misguided nature of the contract wasn't Mr. Powers' fault alone. ITRR officials said they don't discuss matters involving clients.
Mr. Rendell has directed his staff, state police, the state Emergency Management Agency, Mr. Powers to come up with a better way of finding out about possible threats to infrastructure and then getting the word to officials in a locality.
Word about the dissemination of warnings leaked out through an e-mail the state Homeland Security Office mistakenly sent to an opponent of Marcellus Shale gas drilling. That eventually led to an article Tuesday in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, which is how Mr. Rendell learned of the tracking of protesters.
Mr. Powers told the Patriot-News he was trying to protect public safety, claimed and that there had been "five or 10" incidents of vandalism related to the gas industry.
Mr. Rendell said that is the type of threat which, if based on credible evidence, should be relayed to local officials. But he said he had no information about any of the other supposed gas-related incidents.
Gene Stilp, an opponent of gas drilling, said he was outraged that the state would be "spying" on environmental protesters. He asked for legislative hearings. "This is not the way Pennsylvania government is supposed to run," he said.
Jeff Schmidt, of the Sierra Club, said that even if the contract was rescinded, it still has "a chilling effect" on the environmental community.
First Published September 15, 2010 12:00 am