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Pa. homeland security chief to testify that tracking activists was 'error in judgment'

HARRISBURG - The state's homeland security director says "an error in judgment" led him to hire a Philadelphia-based terrorism intelligence firm to monitor activists statewide, including antiwar protesters, environmentalists, and other groups with no history of violence.

James F. Powers faces a Senate hearing on Monday.
James F. Powers faces a Senate hearing on Monday.Read more

HARRISBURG - The state's homeland security director says "an error in judgment" led him to hire a Philadelphia-based terrorism intelligence firm to monitor activists statewide, including antiwar protesters, environmentalists, and other groups with no history of violence.

In written testimony he is set to deliver Monday at a Senate hearing, James F. Powers Jr. says his office paid for the intelligence bulletins because other state and federal agencies weren't providing information about local activity that he thought was critical to protect nearly 4,000 sites in the commonwealth.

"I sincerely apologize to any individual or group, regardless of their views or affiliation, who felt their constitutional rights infringed upon because they were listed in the bulletin," Powers says in his testimony, a copy of which was obtained by The Inquirer. "That was never the intention."

The remarks amount to Powers' first public comments since news of the bulletins sparked an uproar among activists and legislators two weeks ago. Gov. Rendell ordered the $103,000 contract with the Institute on Terrorism Research and Response terminated, saying he was unaware of the arrangement and appalled to learn that state officials were tracking groups that pose no obvious threat to public safety.

The bulletins, circulated to law enforcement and private companies, described meetings of groups including tea party activists, student protesters, and opponents of natural-gas drilling. Powers and five other law enforcement officials are among the witnesses to be questioned by the Senate Veterans and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

"At a time when public confidence in state government is already plumbing new depths, this controversial matter . . . is toxic to public trust," said State Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne), the committee's chair.

Powers, a former colonel in the Army Special Forces, has served as homeland security director since 2006. His office was folded into the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency three years ago.

In his own testimony, PEMA Director Robert French wrote that officials sought the terrorism research institute contract to fill "an identified gap" in intelligence information so local emergency personnel and agencies could prepare for any incident. "Unfortunately, we fell short," French wrote.

Another witness is expected to be Virginia Cody, a northeastern Pennsylvania opponent of natural-gas drilling, who first learned of the bulletins when Powers mistakenly e-mailed her one, along with a note that seemed to suggest he favored the drilling companies.

"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," Powers wrote.

Powers' prepared testimony makes no reference to Cody or his comments to her.

While Powers has remained silent these last few weeks, some who have worked with him say he has been unfairly tarnished.

Jack Tomarchio, a former ranking intelligence officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Powers is the victim of a misunderstanding by state officials and a notorious lack of cooperation among agencies when it comes to intelligence.

"What I saw was an office that was trying to do its level best in understanding the threat or threats that may be presenting itself to the commonwealth," said Tomarchio, who was deputy undersecretary for intelligence operations in 2007 and 2008 and is now a private consultant.

The institute isn't the only private contractor the state has paid to focus on terrorism.

Since 2003, state records show, Pennsylvania has paid out more than $2 million to help fund counterterrorism studies at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank.

That total includes a $250,000 grant this year for research into "populations demonstrated to be prone to radicalization, such as prison inmates and ex-offenders."

The state's homeland security office and PEMA are among the public and private entities that receive the think tank's bulletins and briefings.

Gregory Montanaro, executive director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, said the center focuses on exploring trends and causes related to terrorism and sharing its findings in briefings, seminars, and publications.

He said the center does not gather intelligence on activists, but focuses instead on the rise of radical Islam within prisons.

"We're not in the business of collecting specific data about any individual or groups - and we don't do that," Montanaro said.

Asked about the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma said its continuing funding reflected a policy decision by state officials after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to support scholarly research on the topic.

"Beyond being a resource to keep up to date on the latest state-of-the-art activity and thinking in the field, I don't know that they've produced anything tangible specifically for us," Tuma said last week. "But I think that people at homeland security and PEMA find value in what they do."