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‘Proven’ deceptive or clueless on activist spying, PA official ‘hides’

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010 14:55 EDT
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Four days after Pittsburgh paper posts ‘State’s homeland security chief goes in hiding’ story, ex-Army colonel still MIA

The head of Pennsylvania’s Office of Homeland Security said last week that his office was not involved in the tracking of peaceful political activists and has reportedly “gone into hiding” now that his statement has been contradicted.

Recently publicized documents show that an intelligence company hired by the state’s Homeland Security office monitored the Tea Party, Students for a Democratic Society, anti-drilling groups, and other activist groups.

Over the past year, the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR) has been sending security bulletins to government officials, law enforcement agencies and private industries about perceived threats, many involving political protests.

Last week, The Harrisburg Patriot-News reported that a leaked bulletin showed the state’s Homeland Security office had been tracking anti-gas drilling groups, including a public screening of the documentary “Gasland.”

At the time, State Homeland Security Director James Powers claimed the group was being monitored because of “five to 10″ incidents of vandalism related to the natural gas industry.

When asked if ITRR was monitoring activists, Power responded, “I don’t know, I haven’t asked them,” but he did indicate that the web traffic of some groups was being tracked.

After the bulletin was leaked, the governor of Pennsylvania apologized for the monitoring, saying he was “deeply embarrassed” and that the actions of the security company were “ludicrous.”

“Still, Rendell said he was not firing his homeland security director, James Powers, but he ordered an end to the $125,000 contract with the Philadelphia-based organization, the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, that supplied the information,” the Associated Press reports.

Rendell said he learned of the matter from a story in The Patriot-News of Harrisburg [last] Tuesday and was appalled that aides did not notify him before inking the contract a year ago.

“I think I would have said ‘no’ to this contract before we ever spent a dime and before we sent out any information that was wrong and violative of, in my judgment, the constitution,” Rendell said.

Due to pressure from the media, the Office of Homeland Security has publicized all of the bulletins it received from ITRR (link).

“Mr. Powers, who makes $106,602 a year, hasn’t been returning phone calls from the news media this week and was said to be out of his office when a reporter stopped in on Wednesday. He did not return a call to his home and his office turned down a request to interview him,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Mr. Powers, who lives in Carlisle, served in the Army from 1971 to 2001 in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Korea and Washington.

The Rendell administration chose him in June 2006 to direct the state Office of Homeland Security, part of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Before joining the state Mr. Powers had several jobs, including a “special operations” consultant for KWG Consulting in Virginia, an adjunct instructor for the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle and a senior fellow with the U.S. Special Operations Command in Hurlburt, Fla.

Despite Power’s claims that “we don’t track anybody,” the released bulletins show a variety of different groups have been surveilled.

“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,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

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.

“A review of all 137 intelligence bulletins, more than 1,250 pages, revealed that more than half explicitly indicate some form of active tracking of groups in the United States,” reports The Harrisburg Patriot-News.

“Analysts will continue to monitor the Tea Party movement in the Commonwealth in order to detect any illegal, racist, and/or anti-government action,” reads a bulletin from Nov. 11, 2009.

A bulletin from February 2010 notes that anti-casino activists were planning a rally in Philadelphia. It states “analysts are monitoring for further information regarding future protests against casino construction that may include elements of disruptive ‘direct action’ such as road or site blockings.”

Another February bulletin says, “ITRR is monitoring anti-war activist communications for additional planning related to Pennsylvania assets.”

A March bulletin announces “ITRR researchers have intercepted internal communications among activists from the Students for a Democratic Society” in Pittsburgh. It says “analysts are currently tracking the SDS discussion of possibly gathering for the event at the Thomas Merton Center.”

A bulletin from May states, “anti-gay, white supremacist and far-right militia communications are currently under review by ITRR domestic terrorism analysts.”

“Gas-drilling opponent and Pittsburgh city Councilman Doug Shields expressed outrage at the revelation and said he’s contemplating a lawsuit and calling for an investigation into what he called a major civil rights violation,” reports Fox News.

“They spied on Americans exercising their rights,” Shields said in an interview. “What I want to know is who woke up one day and contacted this organization?”

Paul Rossi, a civil rights attorney in Kennett Square, Pa., told FoxNews.com by phone Thursday that he’s filing a federal civil rights action against Powers and the contractor.

Rossi, who declined to disclose the plaintiffs listed in the suit, described the monitoring of citizens engaged in political activity as “chilling to First Amendment speech.”

“The Pennsylvania surveillance program was based on the un-American notion that dissent equals danger,” said Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Legal Director, who has filed a Right to Know request asking for all records related to the anti-terrorism bulletins. “This is an egregious abuse of governmental power and a full, independent investigation needs to be launched to determine who was spied on, what other investigations of these groups were undertaken, and who outside of law enforcement was given the intelligence bulletins.”

 
 
 
 
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