HARRISBURG – Gov. Rendell said Tuesday that he was "appalled" and "embarrassed" that his administration's Office of Homeland Security has been tracking and circulating information about legitimate protests by activist groups that do not pose a threat to public safety.
Rendell said he did not know that the state Office of Homeland Security had been paying an outside company to track a long list of activists, including groups that oppose drilling in the Marcellus Shale, animal-rights advocates, and peace activists.
The office then passed that information on to large groups of people, including law enforcement and members of the private sector.
In doing so, Rendell said, the Homeland Security Office had distorted and made a mockery of the state's responsibility to protect "critical infrastructure," and collect and share credible plots to harm it.
"Let me make this as clear as I can make it," the governor said at news conference Tuesday night, pounding his fist on the podium. "Protesting against an idea, a principle, a process, is not a real threat against infrastructure. Protesting is a God-given American right, a right that is in our Constitution, a right that is fundamental to all we believe in as Americans."
Rendell said that he will not fire or discipline anyone in the Office of Homeland Security, headed by director James F. Powers Jr., for the lapse. But he said he ordered the office to terminate its contract with Philadelphia-based Institute of Terrorism and Research Response, which he said has been paid $125,000 in the last year to gather data about possible security threats.
Instead, the governor said, the company passed on alerts about legitimate protests - and the state Homeland Security Office then disseminated them in an intelligence bulletin that it publishes three times a week.
The bulletin included information about a PrideFest by gays and lesbians; a rally that supported his administration's education policy; and an anti-BP candlelight vigil.
"Tell me, what critical infrastructure does the gay and lesbian PrideFest threaten?" Rendell asked. "How in the Lord's name can we consider them to be terrorists?"
Reached last night for comment, Mike Perelman, the institute's codirector, said he "respects the confidentiality of our clients," and does not discuss them.
The controversy over the Homeland Security Office's intelligence bulletins came to light after one became public last week. The August bulletin included a list of forthcoming - and mostly public - hearings involving Marcellus Shale natural-gas drilling, and noted that they would be attended by anti-drilling activists. It also listed a planned screening of the controversial movie Gasland in Philadelphia.
The bulletin also mentioned planned demonstrations and activities by several other groups, including antiwar and antinuclear activists; anarchist groups; and a Philadelphia-based animal-rights group that is planning a protest against a rodeo in Montgomery County this month. The bulletin was disseminated to law enforcement as well as a number of drillers and others in the private sector.
That quickly sparked an outcry from anti-drilling and other environmental and activist groups, who raised the question of whether state government was acting as a security agent for private energy interests. They also raised concerns about whether there was any evidence that the groups being tracked posed a real threat.
"I remember when Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were enemies of the state," said Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg activist and founder of RockTheCapital.org. "When did Lassie, Mother Nature, and vegetarians become the Axis of Evil?"
Added longtime Harrisburg activist Gene Stilp: "What you have is the government of Pennsylvania aligning with the drillers - and that's not the way Pennsylvania should be."
Powers told the Patriot-News of Harrisburg earlier this week that there recently have been several acts of vandalism against the natural-gas industry. But state officials would not provide details Tuesday about those acts or evidence they were committed by anti-drilling groups in the state.
The Homeland Security memo cites an extract from an August FBI bulletin that states that "environmental extremists continue to target the energy industry." Although the incidents have mostly involved "vandalism, trespassing and threats by environmental activists . . . this pattern is beginning to morph - transitioning to more criminal, extremist measures."
When the memo was made public, Powers e-mailed a person he believed had posted it on the Internet and wrote that it was meant only for those "with a valid need to know."
"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.
According to state officials, the state's intelligence memo is sent to a large list of people, including law enforcement. It is also sent to people in private industry - such as the gas industry - if their sectors are included in the memo. Providing that information to those entities helps "increase situational awareness for public safety officials," said Maria Finn, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the Homeland Security Office.