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Intelligence Failure

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It's not often you see so many enemies of the state in broad daylight. But there they were on Sept. 28, gathered at the foot of the Federal Building on Grant Street while rush-hour traffic crawled by.

The two dozen activists -- mostly in their 50s or older, and holding signs opposing a "police state" -- didn't look like a threat. But in the past month, the public learned that they had drawn considerable attention from state and federal authorities. 

Law enforcement "had an obsession, it seems, with the surveillance of a peace protesters and anti-war activists," said Thomas Merton Center board chair Michael Drohan, whose organization was named in a recently released government report on improper surveillance by the FBI.

As if to prove the point, moments earlier building security had forced Drohan and his compatriots out of the wedge-shaped parklet next to the Federal Building, where they'd originally gathered. The group didn't have a permit, and guards demanded they assert their freedom of speech someplace that wasn't government property.

"It's our government!" a protester objected.

"We're just doing our jobs," a guard explained. The rally continued on the sidewalk a few feet away, with protesters denouncing government surveillance while another guard stood by, taking notes. Relations were amicable, but protesters were clearly irked. And heads nodded as Edith Bell, who grew up in Germany during the Nazis' rise to power, warned, "How can it happen here? Slowly."

 

Security guards taking notes at a Sept. 28 protest against government surveillance. - CHRIS POTTER
  • Chris Potter
  • Security guards taking notes at a Sept. 28 protest against government surveillance.

Just doing our jobs. Pennsylvanians have heard that explanation a lot lately. 

According to a report released last month by the Department of Justice's Inspector General, Merton Center activities were monitored by agents who were just trying to keep busy on slow days. [See "Work Ethics."] That news came on top of another surprising disclosure: Since last fall, Pennsylvania Homeland Security officials had paid more than $100,000 to a Philadelphia-based organization, the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR), to furnish regular "intelligence bulletins" warning of potential threats to public safety and order. The resulting 137 bulletins, however, ended up focusing heavily on the activities of environmental protesters and other left-leaning activists

State Homeland Security director James Powers resigned amid the furor on Oct. 1. In an appearance before state legislators, Powers "sincerely apologize[d] to any individual or group ... who felt their constitutional rights [were] infringed upon." 

But Gloria Forouzan, for one, says that's not enough. "Everyone is patting themselves on the back, saying, 'We took action,'" says Forouzan, a Lawrenceville resident opposed to deep-level natural-gas drilling in the state. "But [Powers] didn't work on his own. Somebody told him to do this. And they are still there."

ITRR did not respond to a query from City Paper, and has generally shunned the press. (It has already been sued over the bulletins by at least one environmental group.) Co-founder Michael Perelman told a state Senate panel Sept. 27 that "We didn't track individuals," and that "[t]here is no list" of enemies. 

Indeed, the group apparently compiled its bulletins by relying heavily on material posted online.

Take, for example, a July 12 bulletin whose contents the ITRR later touted in a press release. On July 9, the bulletin reported, the wife of a Houston oil executive was injured by a pipe bomb concealed in a gift box of chocolates. And "[i]n subsequent research by ITRR," the group's Sept. 15 press release claimed, "anti-capitalist and environmental militants expressed satisfaction with the attack." The release cited a series of quotes whose source ITRR did not identify: "One oil executive dead is just a good beginning," read one.

A Google search suggests that most of these passages were gleaned from anonymous comments posted online. Based on that evidence, ITRR warned that the bombing could be proof of an "environmentalist slide toward violence" that ITRR had previously warned about. The bulletin also warned that some companies, including agri-giant Monsanto, were mentioned by name, and mentioned specific facilities within the state that could be at risk.

ITRR isn't the only firm grazing the Internet for warning signs. Monsanto itself, for example, retains its own consultant to monitor online chatter. It does so, says Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher, to keep abreast of "activities or groups that could pose a risk to the company [or] its personnel."

Publicly available information can be useful. In a 2007 New Yorker piece, for example, Malcolm Gladwell noted that a group of World War II intelligence experts predicted the deployment of the Nazi's secret V-1 rocket simply by listening to Nazi propaganda broadcasts.

But generally, says former FBI agent Mike German, "A real terrorist group isn't going to publish their plans on the Internet." And German, who now works for the American Civil Liberties Union monitoring government surveillance, says Internet chatter must be analyzed correctly. "The only thing worse than no intelligence is bad intelligence. Because bad intelligence sends you in all sorts of wrong directions."

According to subsequent media reports in the Houston bombing, for example, police began to suspect that the executive's wife was the intended target, and that the motive was a family dispute. Those news reports were posted online as well -- within 10 days of the ITRR bulletin. Subsequent ITRR bulletins did not, however, update the information, or suggest the bombing might not confirm an "environmentalist slide toward violence" after all. 

Forouzan, in fact, seems upset both by the idea that companies are being paid to spy on them ... and by the possibility that they're doing a half-hearted job. 

Forouzan maintains an anti-drilling website apparently monitored by ITRR, and agrees that browsing the web isn't spying, per se. "A website is public information," she says. But "There appears to be no research into whether we were really up to something. I spend a lot of time online -- I'd like $100,000 too." 

Edith Bell, a veteran activist, spoke at the Sept. 28 rally. - CHRIS POTTER
  • Chris Potter
  • Edith Bell, a veteran activist, spoke at the Sept. 28 rally.

Indeed, the government's intelligence-gathering apparatus can seem less like the Thought Police, and more like the Keystone Kops. The Inspector General's report, for example, concludes that during an investigation of local anti-war protesters, an FBI agent recruited the friend of his son to report on activists' plans. The informant produced little useful intelligence -- though he apparently did "provid[e] computer assistance to the agent." And would an FBI agent really spy on activists simply just to impress his boss, as the report suggests?

"That is plausible -- unfortunately," says German, who worked in domestic terrorism for a dozen years before leaving in a dispute over the FBI's handling of a case. Like any bureaucracy, he says, law-enforcement agencies have their own rules for getting ahead. Which is why an FBI agent might recruit an informant -- just to say he had one. 

"There's a weird incentive structure built in: There is a requirement for participating in the informant program -- whether the informant produces good intelligence or not." 

Still, while the process may seem comical, the results may not be. 

Local prisoner-rights activist Bret Grote, for example, suspects that his group's appearance in a May 2010 bulletin could have cost him his job.

ITRR warned a demonstration for prisoner rights "may include an attempt to obstruct access to [the] courthouse ... or physically occupying part of the court premises." None of that happened -- "All we're trying to do is notify people about the abuse of prison inmates," Grote says -- but two days later, he was fired from his job knocking on doors for the Census Bureau. 

Given "the timing of this bulletin, that firing and the flagging of my file all makes sense," he says. (His May 19 letter of termination says he was fired because of information gleaned from "your fingerprint record from the FBI criminal history database" and information Grote had provided previously. Grote says his only offenses were a minor shoplifting charge and a DUI, since expunged. "And they'd already done a background check in February.")

Others named in the bulletins are simply bemused. One bulletin warned of a Nov. 9, 2009, screening of The Yes Men Fix the World -- "a film satirizing government and corporations in the Michael Moore Tradition" -- at the Three Rivers Film Festival. "After its first showing in New York City," the bulletin advised, "audience members were encouraged to march to a nearby Chase Bank branch. Using charcoal, "audience members vandalized the bank by writing graffiti all over the bank's front and on the adjacent sidewalk." Such efforts were encouraged, the bulletin added, by "aggressive Anarchist-type organizations."

"It was not vandalism at all," counters filmmaker Mike Bonanno. "[T]he charcoal washes off in the rain!" In any case, says Pittsburgh Filmmakers executive director Charlie Humphrey, who hosted the screening, the event went off "without any protest or fuss." Which is just as well, since Humphrey's group was "utterly unaware of the bulletins" or their warnings. 

 

With Powers' departure, and the release of the Inspector General's report, government officials are anxious to put the matter behind them. 

The Pennsylvania State Police, for example, have released a series of e-mails dating to 2009, when they privately warned other government officials that ITRR releases were unreliable. ("Some of their information is accurate," read a Dec. 17 e-mail from Major George Bivens, "but if you just read their monthly intelligence report, you would believe we were being overrun by massive numbers of armed militia members.") But such warnings were never made public, German notes -- and the bulletins continued for the better part of a year. 

"Where there's no oversight or accountability," he says, "what starts out as Keystone Kops can become a system where people are actually being targeted, and having their rights affected." 

Even if you buy the government's explanation that FBI agents were just trying to stay busy, activists say, it's worth noting they focused most of their energy on left-leaning groups. Even as Pennsylvanians were coming to grips with their own surveillance, citizens in Iowa were reading about how FBI agents "staked out the homes of political activists ... pored through their garbage, and studied their cell phone and motor vehicle records," as the Des Moines Register put it. The ACLU has tracked stories of political spying in nearly three dozen states, German says. 

"It becomes clear that they were spying for political reasons," activist Pete Shell told the Grant Street protesters on Sept. 28. "This harassment and spying has got to stop."

Moments later, the guards told him he had to move. 

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