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Drilling Opponents Spied on Like Terrorists

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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September 16, 2010

Once again, police “intelligence” functions created to supposedly help prevent terrorism are being used to violate the rights of peaceful political groups — this time in Pennsylvania.

Documents obtained by the investigative journalism group ProPublica revealed that the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security (OHS) has been gathering information on the peaceful political activities of environmental activists opposed to a controversial form of gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” In addition, the documents strongly suggest that the Pennsylvania OHS was actively taking sides in the political dispute between environmentalists and drilling companies.

According to the ProPublica documents, a private contractor was hired by the Pennsylvania OHS to supply anti-terrorism bulletins. These bulletins included things like overseas intelligence about possible new plots — but also, the new documents show, things like lists of public meetings that anti-drilling activists planned to attend.

The fact that natural gas drilling activists were planning on attending zoning meetings in Butler County, Pennsylvania, may be considered “hot intelligence” in the boardrooms of the drilling companies that the activists were opposing — but there is no justification for police officials to be tracking such things.

As the AP reports, the bulletin also tracked other “potential security concerns” including “demonstrations by anti-war groups, deportation protesters in Philadelphia, mountaintop removal mining protesters in West Virginia and an animal rights protest at a Montgomery County rodeo.” It also listed “Burn the Confederate Flag Day,” and Jewish and Muslim holidays and included warnings concerning “anarchists and Black Power radicals.”

This kind of nonsense is unfortunately something that we’ve been seeing more and more of in recent years — so much so that we have created a Web site, Spyfiles, and issued a report tracking the rise in police interference with political activity in recent years. Such incidents have taken place in at least 33 states plus the District of Columbia.

There are several striking aspects to these latest abuses in Pennsylvania, however.

For one thing, the contractor that gathered the information for the OHS, the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR), is paid through a grant from the federal government to monitor online activity in “critical infrastructure” areas. This is the latest in a long list of cases in which federal DHS money is being used to pump up state and local surveillance that probably would not otherwise take place. (Many of the new municipal surveillance-camera systems that are popping up around the country are funded that way, for example.)

In addition, this incident appears to fit within the long and unfortunate tendency of law enforcement personnel to get confused about their proper role. They are supposed to keep order — a vital and necessary function in any society. But all too often, they confuse that mission with protecting the current order, and end up taking the side of the wealthy and powerful against their peaceful political opponents.

The “intelligence” bulletins containing the details of anti-drilling activism, for example, were sent not only to law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania, but also companies drilling gas in the Marcellus Shale. In an email obtained by drilling opponents, the OHS director James Powers wrote, “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.”

As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out this morning, Powers also wrote that the bulletin “is not for dissemination to the public,” but “is solely meant for owners/operators & security personnel associated with our critical infrastructure & key resources.”

If there is genuine information about potential terrorist attacks that can be shared with corporate executives who lack security clearances, it should be shared with the public. There is no “business class” in law enforcement. At issue is a serious environmental dispute, which needs to be settled fairly and openly in the public square. Critics say that fracking, which involves the injection of water and chemicals deep underground, pollutes groundwater with dangerous chemicals and causes other environmental problems. Why should a government department supposedly charged with protecting the well-being of Pennsylvanians take the side of one party (the drillers) in that dispute? That is not their job.

To his credit, on Tuesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell shut down the ITRR intelligence reports, apologized to the groups who were monitored, and acknowledged that the OHS’s activities were “ludicrous” and “stunning.” However, he did not fire OHS Director Powers.

In his 1990 book Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America , Frank Donner argues that there is a “strong case” for the thesis that over the past century urban police — especially specialty branches such as “Red Squads” and “intelligence units” — have “served as the protective arm of the economic and political interests” of the wealthy and powerful status quo.

Americans need to always remember that time after time, the authorities seek new powers to fight terrorism — and end up wielding them against peaceful dissenters.

(Cross-posted to Huffington Post and Daily Kos.)

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