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Firefighters asked to report people who express discontent with the government
David Edwards and Muriel Kane
Published: Thursday November 29, 2007
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It was revealed last week that firefighters are being trained to not only keep an eye out for illegal materials in the course of their duties, but even to report back any expression of discontent with the government.

A year ago, Homeland Security gave security clearances to nine New York City fire chiefs and began sharing intelligence with them. Even before that, fire department personnel were being taught "to identify material or behavior that may indicate terrorist activities" and were also "told to be alert for a person who is hostile, uncooperative or expressing hate or discontent with the United States."

Unlike law enforcement officials, firemen can go onto private property without a warrant, not only while fighting fires but also for inspections. "It's the evolution of the fire service," said a Phoenix, AZ fire chief of his information-sharing arrangement with law enforcement.

Keith Olbermann raised the alarm about the program on his show Wednesday, noting that "if the information-sharing program works in New York, the department says it will extend it to other major metropolitan areas, unless we stop them." He then asked Mike German, a former FBI agent who is now with the ACLU, "This program seems to be turning [firefighters], essentially, into legally protected domestic spies, does it not?"

"That's the entire intent," German replied, noting the serious legal issues involved. "There is actually still a fourth amendment," he pointed out, "and what makes a firefighter's search reasonable is that it's done to prevent a fire. If now firefighters are going in with this secondary purpose, that end run around the fourth amendment won't work, and it's likely that they will find themselves in legal trouble."

Olbermann, however, was most strongly concerned about the implications for civil liberties. "Is what disturbs you and the ACLU the same thing that just jumped off the page for me?" he asked. "That one phrase, 'look for people who are expressing hatred of or discontent with the United States?' Discontent?"

German agreed that there are serious first amendment issues raised by the focus of the program on constitutionally-protected literature, such as books that might be considered "terrorist propaganda."

Olbermann asked in conclusion whether firefighters could be used under this program to plant evidence. German agreed that the way it is defined "really plays to people's prejudices and gives them the opportunity to do damage to someone."

This video is from MSNBC's Countdown, broadcast on November 28, 2007.