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Domestic Insecurity

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Quoting Karl Marx might not be a smart idea these days: Homeland Security contractors have been known to monitor your website for less. But I could use the online traffic, so here goes:

"History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."

In this, as in so much else, Pennsylvania seems to be doing things backwards. Lately, the excesses of latter-day McCarthyism are now playing out like an episode of Reno 911

As reported elsewhere in this issue, Pennsylvanians have discovered that the state paid more than $100,000 for a series of "Intelligence Bulletins," each compiled by the Philadelphia-based Institute for Terrorism Research and Response. The bulletins relied heavily on material found by trolling the Internet, looking for potential criminal activity in environmentalist chatrooms and discussions of local zoning hearings. More recently, a federal Department of Justice report revealed that in the early 2000s, the FBI carried out surveillance of local peace activists affiliated with the Thomas Merton Center -- just to impress the boss.

It'd be nice to think that's all behind us. The ITRR's contract has been scrapped; the state Homeland Security director has resigned. The FBI surveillance, meanwhile, dates to the Bush administration. Move along, nothing to see here.

Not so fast. For one thing, the ITRR wasn't alone in warning of terror threats from environmentalists. Its Aug. 30 dispatch, for example, purportedly included an "extract" taken from an FBI report dated a week before: "The FBI ... assesses -- with medium confidence -- extremists will continue to commit criminal activity against not only the energy companies, but against secondary or tertiary targets."

As the bulletin itself notes, a "lack of direct reporting" makes it hard to assess the legitimacy of that warning. But in any case, that ain't George W. Bush's FBI. These are the same folks who, even now, want broad power to wiretap your Blackberry, and to monitor online communication services like Skype. 

Of course, if the police sometimes have to tap your phone, it's hard to see why communicating via Skype should be immune. But as we've seen, government officials don't always use these powers wisely. And when abuse happens, it can take months -- even years -- to come to light. 

If you want to escape police-state scrutiny, in fact, your best bet may be to become a cop. 

Just last week, for example, news surfaced of yet another setback in the investigation of police conduct during last year's G-20 economic summit. On Sept. 28, members of the Citizens Police Review Board -- which is battling Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration in court over access to G-20 documents -- learned that their attorneys were resigning. 

The reason? The board solicitors are paid by the city ... and the city's Law Department stopped payment on their invoices unless they agreed to change their contract. According to the attorneys' resignation letter, the Law Department originally wanted the power to fire them outright. That would be useful, since the Law Department has been battling those attorneys in court. And though the Law Department later abandoned that demand, it still insisted the board's attorneys accept other changes, including an agreement to be held liable for any legal advice that went bad.

The review board has played hardball too, of course: It sought to have police Chief Nate Harper declared in contempt of court for refusing to turn over the documents. After that, Ravenstahl replaced most of the review-board members themselves. Which means that for the second time this year, the review board is replacing veteran hands with newcomers. We'll see how much independence, or power, the board has left when the G-20 fracas plays out.

But whether you blame the city for scorched-earth tactics, or the board for overreaching in the first place, those seeking more police accountability are running out of options. Even as the FBI's Bush-era surveillance was making headlines, for example, three Pittsburgh police officers accused of beating high school honor student Jordan Miles continued their months-long paid vacation. They've been on paid leave from the city since last winter because federal investigators have neither prosecuted nor formally closed the case. (If only the parties involved would post evidence online, where the government could find it!) 

And did we mention that the front-running candidate for governor, state Attorney General Tom Corbett, sought to reveal the identity of two anonymous Twitterers who'd criticized him?

Don't be surprised, in other words, if history repeats itself -- next time as tragedy. 

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