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Monday, September 20, 2010

So can we fire the FBI too?

Posted By on Mon, Sep 20, 2010 at 8:13 PM

When we last left the bizarre story of how the state apparently keeps tabs on environmentalists and other activists, Governor Ed Rendell had terminated the state's contract with the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, the private-sector outfit that tracked these "threats." State Sen Jim Ferlo, meanwhile, wants to terminate the guy who hired them:

State Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Lawrenceville) is demanding the immediate resignation or firing of Pennsylvania State Homeland Security Director James Powers, Jr. Senator Ferlo said Mr. Powers crossed the line by surveilling the general public when they were participating in legitimate and appropriate democratic activities that were without question nonthreatening.

Is that good enough?

Maybe not. 

Let's remember that ITRR and Powers apparently weren't acting entirely on their own here. This whole fiasco started with an Aug. 30 "intelligence bulletin" issued by the state. And while ITRR compiled the material, as ProPublica points out,  not all the information came from them. In fact, the bulletin's assertions "relating to the threat of 'environmental extremism' was originally from the FBI, and was extracted into the Pennsylvania bulletin."

That document, you'll recall, states that

The FBI also assesses -- with medium confidence -- extremists will continue to commit criminal activity against not only the energy companies, but against secondary or tertiary targets. This assessment includes the use of tactics to try to intimidate companies into making policy decisions deemed appropriate by extremists

So, can we fire the FBI too? 

That might be a good idea. Because this is the same agency whose investigation of Pittsburgh antiwar protesters was the subject of this report. Issued earlier today of the Office of the Inspector General, the report is titled "A Review of the FBI's Investigations of Certain Domestic Advocacy Groups" -- and it suggests that the Harrisburg fiasco may be the tip of the iceberg. Pages 36 through 92 of the report document the FBI's highly problematic -- and at times laughable -- surveillance of Pittsburgh antiwar activists.

I'm having a sort of hard time summarizing this thing for you, because when I read it, parts of my brain start yelling at other parts of my brain. Suffice it to say the whole thing would be hilarious if it weren't so creepy. Among other things we learn ... 

  • FBI agents investigated the Thomas Merton Center and the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG) because they literally didn't have anything else to do. An FBI agent surveilled and photographed a 2002 Merton Center rally, because "work was slow" the Friday after Thanksgiving. The agent, a new hire on probationary assignment, began taking photos of Merton Center activists leafletting in Market Square to "show his supervisor that he was 'earning his pay'." Similarly, an agent confesses that an investigation into POG got underway because "work is light ... [W]e are looking for work, which is why folks in POG even get on the radar."
  • When the ACLU demanded records relating to FBI surveillance of the Merton Center event, a cover-up apparently ensued. Someone in the agency wrote up a "routing slip" -- which seeks to redact certain information before a document is released publicly -- that made it look like the FBI was really tracking individuals suspected of terrorist ties. The report makes a pretty convincing argument for why that isn't true. And it surmises that the routing slip was intended to make "a stronger justification for the surveillance of the Merton Center anti-war rally than was in fact the case." The routing slip became the basis for a misleading press release issued by the FBI in the matter, and for false Congressional testimony made by FBI chief Robert Mueller.
  • Among the FBI's informants was the friend of an agent's kid. As page 91 of the report spells out, "[T]he agent recruited a friend of his son and gave him surveillance assignments with at best thin relevance to any open investigation or to preventing terrorism." Why go to the trouble? The report asserts that the agent's motive was "not the detection or prevention of terrorism but rather to enable the case agent to 'get into the source program' and 'show some more tasking and reporting.'" In other words, this had everything to do with some bureaucratic ass-covering -- an effort to bolster the agent's "performance statistics."

I've got a feeling that this ain't an isolated incident. I've got a feeling that after the 9/11 attacks, a whole new sector of government and private industry sprung up. And that huge chunks of this money are wasted on bullshit investigations of activists who pose no threat to anybody except themselves.Simply to justify people's paychecks.

I'll have more to say about the state's Intelligence Bulletins soon. In the meantime, you gotta wonder just how far down the rabbit hole this is gonna go. I mean, Senator Ferlo isn't just calling for Powers' head. He also wants to file a complaint with the Department of Justice. That would be the same DOJ whose agents have just been cited by the Inspector General for doing the same thing Ferlo faults for happening here --"conducting surveillance activists without appropriate pretext of threat [of] violence." 

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