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Daniel Rubin: Keeping Pennsylvanians safe, or unwarranted domestic spying?

Those out of the loop might be alarmed to read the Pennsylvania Actionable Intelligence Bulletin, which warns law enforcement officials of such potential trouble spots as pro-education rallies, antigun demonstrations, and the coming of the circus.

Those out of the loop might be alarmed to read the Pennsylvania Actionable Intelligence Bulletin, which warns law enforcement officials of such potential trouble spots as pro-education rallies, antigun demonstrations, and the coming of the circus.

Someone put a dozen of the bulletins in my hands recently, wondering whether the money for them was well spent. The alerts made for disturbing bedside reading.

The May 31 report warned of what could happen at the Memorial Day parade in Philadelphia. Security personnel were alerted, seeing as how "lone-wolf, small-cell and international jihadist cells have all targeted such events and locations in the recent past."

That bulletin also cautioned that a pro-immigration organization called Stop Deportation, with other "antinationalist" groups, was calling for protests.

A coalition of antiwar activists would be holding a demonstration at 40th and Market Streets with the theme, "Funding for Philadelphia, Not for War!"

Stones and eggs

And later in June, the Philly LGBT Pride Parade and Festival promised to be well attended, although recent antigay chatter among right-wing militias suggested the annual event could attract the sorts of stone- and egg-throwers seen this spring - in Belarus and Slovakia.

Obviously, I'm one of those out of the loop. Where does this stuff come from?

While we sleep, intelligence analysts have their ears to the ground in 72 countries, sifting through threats of terrorism near and far, according to James F. Powers Jr., the director of the state Office of Homeland Security.

In the fall, a company called the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response - with offices, or at least post office boxes, in Philadelphia and Jerusalem - won a $103,000 contract to watch our backs.

I asked Powers, a former Green Beret colonel - "The things I tried to blow up for 30 years, now I have to defend" - how this contract came about.

Critical assets

He wondered if I'd heard of the Patriot Act, and explained how Congress required states to identify and then protect critical assets, such as Independence Hall and the Inquirer-Daily News Building. I liked his style.

While some states - California, for instance - have police do the job, Pennsylvania didn't have any intelligence officers to spare, Powers said, so it turned to the only company that analyzed worldwide threats with an eye toward what harm could land here.

The Institute is directed by Michael Perelman, a former York police commander, and Aaron Richman, a former Israeli counterterrorism commander. Powers said he signed up for their middle-priced plan - three-times-a-week bulletins plus Monday-through-Friday consultation.

Just reading through some of the bulletins made me nervous. Analysts in February intercepted communications in which jihadists discussed implanting explosives in dogs and sending them on passenger planes. Some things you just don't want to think about.

To my eye, there's much that's useful in these bulletins, such as reports of trouble around the world, in places where Pennsylvania colleges send their students.

Bruce Hoffman, who directs the security studies program at the Georgetown University, agreed. I sent him a bulletin from last Monday, and he found it "sober and informative. I didn't get the sense that it was alarmist or over-the-top."

He was a little taken aback by some of the events flagged; the list includes the 28th annual Riyaadah, a Muslim family celebration in Philadelphia, and a gay-pride festival in Harrisburg. But he said they were included probably so that law enforcement could be alerted to events that might attract violent counterprotests.

The circus, for instance, "has been a frequent target of animal rights protesters," a February bulletin noted.

But why the warning about the Coalition for Peace Action, which was to hold candlelight vigils across the region the day after the death of the 1,000th U.S. soldier in Afghanistan?

Or the groups that were advocating for more education funding in the state, such as the Pennsylvania Citizens for Children and Youth, whose leader, Shelly Yanoff, is a former winner of the Philadelphia Award? Or the Good Schools Pennsylvania group, which was founded by Donna Cooper, Gov. Rendell's chief policy adviser?

"If that's the kind of stuff that's in the newsletter," Cooper said, "its appropriateness is questionable."

Powers told me that the bulletins let police learn about groups that have not obtained permits, and that the information allows better decisions about deploying officers to keep the peace.

I asked whether he could point to any specific threat that the Institute had identified. He could.

In September, the G-20 summit was held in Pittsburgh to discuss the world economy, and thousands of protesters were expected. Powers said that Institute analysts posed in chat rooms as sympathizers of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, which opposed the summit, and learned where the group would be mobilizing. "We got the information to the Pittsburgh police," he said, "and they were able to cut them off at the pass."

Were these protesters planning to go in with Molotov cocktails or bullhorns? Was infiltrating the group just good policing, or unwarranted domestic spying?

The ACLU has sued the Pittsburgh Police Department, accusing it of violating protesters' rights. Staff attorney Mary Catherine Roper said that the Pittsburgh Organizing Group practices civil disobedience, such as blocking Army recruitment centers, but has never, to her knowledge, been violent.

"They've never even threatened violent activity," she said. "Marches, sit-ins, shouting a lot - I'm sure. I want the Pennsylvania homeland security department to be looking for terrorists. I don't want them spending my tax dollars following a bunch of long-haired activists."

Obviously she's out of the loop, too.