As early as January, the head of the Pennsylvania State Police’s intelligence unit warned the state’s Office of Homeland Security that its intelligence bulletins — compiled for the state by an anti-terrorism contractor — contained inaccurate and useless information about threats to state infrastructure, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“I likened it to reading the National Enquirer. Every so often they have something right, but most of the time it's unsubstantiated gossip,” George Bivens, director of the state police’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, testified in a Pennsylvania Senate hearing Monday.
The state’s Office of Homeland Security, the governor’s office, and the contractor—the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response—have all faced scrutiny after one such bulletin was leaked and reported by ProPublica and other news outlets.
In the bulletin, opponents to natural gas drilling were labeled “environmental extremists” and described as a growing threat to the state’s energy sector. A number of other events organized by anti-war groups, gas drilling opponents, and animal activists were also listed in the bulletin.
Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said he was “deeply embarrassed” that groups “exercising their constitutional right to free speech and to protest” were described as threats under a contract that was entered into without his knowledge. He said the state would not renew the contract, and his office has since released the content of all the bulletins.
But long before the bulletins became a controversy, leaders of the Pennsylvania State Police raised red flags about the bulletins, according to their testimony this week. From The Associated Press:
Bivens said his concerns about the Pennsylvania Critical Infrastructure Bulletins began shortly after they began to appear a year ago. He said they included information taken out of context and that some of the analysis was biased.
Bivens said state police higher-ups had to order local stations not to respond to some of the events because the department's internal analysis determined there was no real threat to public safety.
"This is one of the problems you have when you contract intelligence work to amateurs,” State Police Commissioner Frank Pawlowski recalled telling the governor’s chief of staff, in testimony reported by the AP.
Both the state and the state’s contractor have denied specifically keeping a list of activist groups or individual activists, but as The Harrisburg Patriot-News has pointed out, some of the now-released bulletins read: “ITRR researchers have intercepted internal communications among activists” and “analysts have identified individuals … ”
Specifically regarding a group of drilling opponents, one bulletin said, “analysts will continue to track this group and affiliated parties.” It also noted that while the group’s trainings “do not include violent tactics,” its demonstrations could “close down a facility and embarrass a company.”
Activists at the hearing expressed uneasiness and fear of being tracked or kept under government surveillance.
But Mike Perelman, the contractor’s co-director and a former police captain, maintained that his firm did no such thing. "We didn't track individuals, we didn't track groups," Perelman told the committee. "No, there is no list.
James Powers, director of the state’s Office of Homeland Security, apologized to the groups that were affected, though he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I still feel what we were doing was right for the people.”
A local group with concerns about natural gas drilling has sued for damages from Powers, Perelman, and the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, alleging that the secret surveillance violated the group's constitutional rights. The lawsuit by the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition was filed in federal court in Scranton on Monday.