Governor Apologizes for State Treating Activists as Terrorists

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September 16, 2010

On Sept. 14, 2010, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell ended a state contract with a private firm that improperly collected and distributed information about protestors and activists. Rendell said information about environmental protests, a gay rights rally and other peaceful gatherings became the subject of anti-terrorism bulletins being distributed by the state’s homeland security department to law enforcement and members of the private sector. The Governor apologized for the bulletins, which went out three times a week and were not intended to be made public, calling the wrongful dissemination of information a violation of constitutional rights.

“I am appalled that information was disseminated about groups that were exercising their constitutional right to free speech and to protest. They shouldn't be on any list,” of possible security threats, Rendell said.

Started in October 2009, the $103,000 contract between the state and the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR), was setup to inform state police and homeland security agents about “credible threats to critical infrastructure" around the state. An August bulletin included information about anti-drilling protestors planning on attending a public hearing about an upcoming natural-gas drilling company. The 12-page bulletin included security concerns about "anarchists and Black Power radicals," and labeled "Burn the Confederate Flag Day," the Jewish high holidays and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as possible security risks.

The bulletin was distributed to law enforcement throughout the state and to private companies, including ones that do drilling. This triggered outrage from anti-drilling activists who accused the state of serving as a security agent for energy companies.  "I remember when Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were enemies of the state," said Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg area activist. "When did Lassie, Mother Nature, and vegetarians become the Axis of Evil," he asked? 

ITRR did not respond to media inquiries nor release a statement in response to their contract termination. Its website says they are experts in providing “counter-terrorism training, seminars, and security specialization.”
Despite a July report about state authorized bulletins identifying anti-gun and pro-education protestors as security concerns, Rendell said he had been unaware of the one-year contract. "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 added.
The events in Pennsylvania raise questions about the information that other states and their security contractors might be gathering on political activists. In July 2008, Maryland State Police had spied on anti-war and anti-death penalty activists for more than a year. The federal Department of Homeland Security assisted in the spying, which drew condemnation from Maryland politicians, activists and civil liberties groups for months. To learn more, see the ACLU’s Spying on First Amendment Activity - State-by-State website.