Emails recently released from a Right-To-Know request show that the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security monitored the twitter activity of law-abiding citizens.
The emails, obtained by the website PARevolution.com, show that a private firm used twitter to collect intelligence on anti-war protests as a part of their contract with the department.
Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR) monitored the activities of the Berks Peace Community, a group of Quaker-affiliated senior citizens, who routinely meet on the Penn State Bridge in Reading to protest America's "war habit."
Collecting intelligence by monitoring tweets is "part of the intelligence effort that is conducted daily... on behalf of the PA Office of Homeland Security," according to the emails.
The former director of Homeland Security, Jim Powers, forwarded an ITRR "alert" email to William Heim, chief of the Reading Police, on July 3 to notify him that a protest was planned on the Penn State Bridge. ITRR had found out about the protest by monitoring the Act Now To Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) website.
"We regularly have anti-war demonstrators on the Penn Street Bridge holding signs and getting motorists to beeping their horns but they have not caused a problem and have not attempted to block the street or traffic in any way," Heim wrote back in a email to Powers.
Powers then asked ITRR to contact the Reading police chief directly.
Mark Perelman, co-founder of ITRR, emailed an offer to brief Heim. "As promised, we will monitor Twitter for any tactical information that can be identified before, during, and immediately after the 5 p.m. demonstration," Perelman said in a follow-up email.
"Because that monitoring activity will be part of the intelligence effort that is conducted daily by our organization on behalf of the PA Office of Homeland Security, there is no charge to the Reading PD," he added.
But ITRR found no related tweets and the next day the protest proved to be of the usual non-threatening sort.
"We placed our best Twitter researcher on the task," wrote Perelman. "She was unable to locate any planned communications for the protest. That fact is significant. Our inability to locate a communications network indicates that probably none exists (we’re pretty good at locating them if/when they exist)."
"Informed knowledge of the anarchist movement would indicate that there is potential that the name ANSWER is enough to bring outside aggressive anarchists to the protest. ITRR has no intelligence to indicate either way. As discussed yesterday, if they come they will most likely act in a lone-wolf/small cell capacity outside the perimeter of free speech activity," he added.
John Hoskyns-Abrahall, a spokesman for the Berks Peace Community, told Patriot-News that the protests are always peaceful.
"We don't shout," he explained. "We're just a presence. ... It's more of a vigil than a demonstration."
Of the surveillance, Hoskyns-Abrahall said, "If that's the best they can do, that is truly pathetic ... more than pathetic -- it's downright un-American, might I say. It represents exactly the worst things we want to put behind us."
Gov. Ed Rendell announced in October that Powers would be stepping down from his post after a scandal erupted over the department's monitoring of lawful groups.
The Discovery Channel website Treehugger revealed last week that a 2009 ITRR briefing showed that they had considered a documentary on coal mining to be a threat to security.