JOSH FOX, who made the HBO documentary "Gasland," about the dangers of drilling for natural gas, opened his comments at a Capitol rally yesterday with, "Is there anybody here today from Homeland Security?"

It wasn't a rhetorical question.

As you no doubt know, the Rendell administration's Office of Homeland Security gave a no-bid contract to a private firm to spy on citizens across two-thirds of the state who, among other things, questioned or protested the fast-expanding drilling for gas from Marcellus Shale.

The firm is the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response. Its website says its purpose is "to help organizations succeed and prosper in a world threatened by terrorism." It claims to have offices in Philly and Jerusalem, and got $103,000 for regular "bulletins" on potential threats.

Such threats, in this case, apparently include exercising freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and participatory democracy.

Gov. Ed, when he found out about it from news reports after 1,250 pages in 137 "bulletins" had been collected since last year, said he was "embarrassed" and ordered the contract not be renewed when it expires Oct. 31.

This is so wrong for so many reasons, and Ed's response isn't enough.

The contract was given by Homeland Security Director James F. Powers Jr., a former Army Special Forces colonel, and approved by a rubber-stamping bureaucrat in the Department of General Services.

The story was first reported in the Harrisburg Patriot-News. Rendell ordered the "bulletin" findings released late last week.

Among the groups tracked and reported on?

The tea party, followed for any "illegal, racist and/or anti-government action"; anti-casino folks in Philly for possible disruptive acts; gay and lesbian groups, I assume because they're gay and lesbian; Students for a Democratic Society, in Pittsburgh, I guess because somebody remembers the '60s; parents in Luzerne County concerned about heavy truck traffic on local roads during school hours; animal-rights activists possibly considering seizing dogs from puppy mills.

I'm not making this up.

There was also a report on an attack on a freight train in India.

(I don't know, maybe anti-drillers are outsourcing some protests.)

Worse, "bulletins" on environmentalists, including individuals attending a public screening of "Gasland," were shared with oil and gas companies.

In a memo leaked to the media, Powers wrote, "We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent."

Filmmaker Fox said, "I'm ashamed of the state of Pennsylvania." He's a native of Milanville in Wayne County.

This whole thing is an outrage and a redundant waste of tax dollars.

Data were gleaned mostly from newspaper accounts, Internet blogs and chat rooms, making it essentially a costly scam. The state should kill the contract and sue the company.

Powers, according to Rendell press secretary Gary Tuma, selected the contractor "to supply him with the information he believed he needed to carry out his duties."

He should have checked with the State Police, which runs a 24/7 criminal-intelligence center and has since 2003. He should have checked with the Attorney General's Office, which also runs an intelligence unit.

Actually, in the case of the latter, A.G. spokesman Nils Frederiksen says, the agency got copies of Powers' reports and "disregarded" them.

Must be useful stuff, eh?

A Senate committee overseeing emergency preparedness holds a hearing on all this on Monday. Committee chairman Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, represents an area with heavy drilling. The committee meets today to give itself subpoena powers.

I tried to talk with Powers yesterday. He was "unavailable" for an interview. I think the Guv should make him unavailable for further state service.

This is an instance, wholly avoidable, in which government shows itself to be too close to what too many citizens believe: that it runs amok, tramples rights, protects its own and charges taxpayers for the fun.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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