Pennsylvania Ordeal Raises New Questions About States' Info-Gathering

 
Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has canceled a $125,000 contract with a consulting firm that sent a bulletin to the state's Office of Homeland Security in which it described opponents of natural gas drilling as "environmental extremists" and suggested they were a threat to the state.

Rendell told reporters in a news conference on Tuesday (Sept. 15) that Pennsylvania would cancel its deal with the firm, the Institute of Terrorism Response and Research, which also identified animal rights demonstrations and anti-war events as potential security threats to the state.

"I am appalled that information was disseminated about groups that were exercising their constitutional right to free speech and to protest," Rendell said, according to ProPublica , an investigative journalism group in New York that broke the initial story about the security bulletin. "They shouldn't be on any list [of possible security threats]. This is extraordinarily embarrassing."

While the state's contract with the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response was relatively small, ProPublica notes that there are many unanswered questions about the episode, suggesting it may not be over. For one, Rendell's staffers knew about the bulletin last week, but Rendell himself claims to have found out only this week. Also, ProPublica reported that the initial description of anti-drilling activists as "environmental extremists" came from the FBI, rather than the private sector.

On a national level, the events in Pennsylvania raise new questions about the information that states and their security contractors might be gathering on political groups or activists who have broken no laws.

In July 2008, The Washington Post reported that Maryland State Police had spied on anti-war and anti-death penalty activists for more than a year during the administration of Robert Ehrlich, a Republican former governor who is also the party's nominee this year to replace current Governor Martin O'Malley. The federal Department of Homeland Security assisted in the spying , which drew condemnation from Maryland politicians, activists and civil liberties groups for months. 

 
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