Thursday, September 30, 2010

Do we Still Have the Freedom to Protest?

They don't bring guns to meetings, they don't throw stones - heck, the most outrageous thing they've done so far is to don costumes and show up at rallies with posters. But for some reason they've been targeted by the Pennsylvania's Intelligence Bulletin as "groups to watch".

Who are these people? Moms, artists, municipal leaders, scientists, landowners ..... people who just want to protect their drinking water from contamination by hydro-fracturing chemicals. And for some reason - who knows why - the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security has labeled people who actively talk about issues affecting their community, and who advocate for their elected officials to take action, as "environmental extremists" - folks who (according to the FBI) might somehow pose an increasing threat to the energy industry. 

The Pennsylvania Intelligence Bulletin is nothing new, but last October the PA Office of Homeland Security outsourced intelligence-gathering activities to the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR). 
What POHS wanted: solid information aimed at preventing terrorist attacks on “critical infrastructure” in the state.What POHS received:  information, gleaned from the internet and other open sources, about tea party rallies, gay pride parades and community meetings where citizens discussed their concerns about drilling in the Marcellus shale.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA) the intelligence bulletin was distributed to government and law enforcement officials, universities, gas drilling companies and industry lobbyists. What are they worried about? That the anti-drilling folks will share information regarding which companies are involved in drilling in the area? Heck - go to any landowner coalition meeting and you hear the same things! Of course people are talking about who's drilling, where the rigs are and how to prepare for it. 

Every week ITRR listed “natural gas drilling events that may draw unruly crowds” in the PA Intel Bull. Their events included watershed meetings, town commissioner meetings, a music festival, the Cabot community picnic, the PA Forestry Association meeting and, of course, the Binghamton EPA meeting originally scheduled for August 12. In most of the bulletins they lump citizens into two groups: “environmental activists and militants” or “landowners and industry representatives”. Sorry all you environmentally-concerned landowners - in ITRR's eyes there is no in-between.

In one bulletin ITRR warns that the group intending to “force pressure tactics” on the EPA is a “loose organization of New York landowners who are in favor of natural gas drilling…” They back this up with selected quotes from an e-mail that was widely circulated by landowner's groups: “EPA is coming to hear from you!” it said; show up and “be seen in solid support of gas development”.

Their bigger concern, of course, was the fear of a large anti-drilling activist turn-out at the EPA meeting. ITRR based their warning for this huge turn-out on activist alerts circulating on the list-serves of Shaleshock (Ithaca), ROUSE (Brooktondale) and NYRAD (NY Residents Against Drilling, in Binghamton).

“Shaleshock is basically a list-serve and an educational resource,” says Lisa Wright. She describes herself as a concerned citizen, finding it hard to get her mind around the "extremist" label ITRR has slapped on the group. "It's pathetic that PA Homeland Security diverted resources to monitoring mostly middle-aged women in comfortable shoes who were planning to attend a hearing to exercise their First Amendment rights,”she says.

Bill Podulka, a founding father of ROUSE is equally stymied by ITRR’s attention. “It is absolutely ludicrous that Homeland Security was monitoring these groups and their listserves,” Podulka says. “Exercising our rights of free speech and freedom of peaceful assembly should not draw the attention of anti-terrorist officials.  I thought we had out-grown this kind of McCarthy-era thinking.”

In the days since news of the intelligence bulletins leaked to the press, PA Governor Edward Rendell has apologized for the unwarranted snooping into citizen gatherings and canceled the contract with ITRR. The PA Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee subpoenaed administrators in Office of Homeland Security to testify, and PA law enforcement has basically dismissed the ITRR information as worthless.

Meanwhile, ACLU-PA has filed a Right to Know request asking for all records related to the anti-terrorism bulletins that included information about activists involved in lawful protests. They are also calling for a full investigation by an independent party.

You can read the PA Intelligence Bulletins at

If you or your group believes you have been targeted by these bulletins, the ACLU suggests that you file a Right to Know request. They have templates on their website and they promise to provide assistance to anyone who encounters difficulties during the process. For help, go to or call 215-592-1513.