Big Brother monitored tweets, too
Published: Thursday, November 04, 2010, 12:00 AM
Updated: Thursday, November 04, 2010, 8:44 AM
DONALD GILLILAND, The Patriot-News
Tracking the Twitter activity of law-abiding citizens was part of the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security’s intelligence surveillance program.
According to internal Homeland Security e-mails produced through a Right-To-Know request, one of the targets of such surveillance was the Berks Peace Community, a 50-year-old group of Quaker-affiliated senior citizens. They gather on the Penn Street Bridge in Reading every Friday and quietly hold signs questioning America’s “war habit.”
The e-mails also indicate that monitoring the tweets of law-abiding citizens was “part of the intelligence effort that is conducted daily... on behalf of the PA Office of Homeland Security.”
Those were the words of Mark Perelman, co-founder of the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, the contractor hired by Homeland Security to provide intelligence for the state.
The contract with ITRR has since expired — not to be renewed. Jim Powers, the director of Homeland Security who initiated the contract, has resigned.
Maria Finn, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which oversees Homeland Security, said she was not familiar with the specific e-mails. But she said monitoring Twitter might not be that unusual, given her experience with the G-20 summit on the global economy last year in Pittsburgh.
“Law enforcement monitored Twitter accounts during the G-20 to get certain types of information because it is public access,” Finn said. “It is not private information.”
Finn said the Twitter monitoring allowed police to know what was happening on the ground and gave them better “situational awareness.”
The Homeland Security e-mails — most of them administrative or relating to issues already reported — offer a few brief glimpses into the depth and scope of monitoring.
On June 3, former Homeland Security Director Powers e-mailed an ITRR “alert” to Reading Chief of Police William Heim of a protest planned on the Penn Street Bridge the following day.
Apparently, ITRR had become aware of the planned demonstration because it was posted on the website of Act Now To Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), an anti-war group started by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
Powers’ e-mail to Heim was not part of the regular distribution of Intelligence Bulletins, but rather a person-to-person alert of planned activity.
Heim said it was “the first and only e-mail like that I got.”
And it had his attention.
Heim e-mailed Powers to ask for more information.
He noted, “We regularly have anti-war demonstrators on the Penn Street Bridge holding signs and getting motorists to beeping their horns but they have not caused a problem and have not attempted to block the street or traffic in any way.”
Heim told The Patriot-News, “My concern was, is this something different?”
Powers responded that ITRR would be contacting the chief.
At 1:59 p.m. Perelman e-mailed Heim with an offer to provide “a briefing.”
After the conversation, Perelman e-mailed Heim to say, “As promised, we will monitor Twitter for any tactical information that can be identified before, during, and immediately after the 5 p.m. demonstration.”
Perelman added, “Because that monitoring activity will be part of the intelligence effort that is conducted daily by our organization on behalf of the PA Office of Homeland Security, there is no charge to the Reading PD.”
That statement throws into high relief the multiple references to “monitoring” of various groups in the Homeland Security bulletins.
Heim said: “I appreciated the heads-up. ... The last thing we want is to have something happen that’s large in scope and be totally unprepared for it.”
Before the demonstration, Heim did some research of his own, the old-fashioned way: He called the people who usually protest on the bridge.
At 3:48, he e-mailed Powers: “There is a local woman, Dorothy Reilly, who is a bit more radical than the local group, and is the one who got the demonstration posted on ANSWER. We can expect 30-40 people on the Penn Street Bridge, unless it is hot and less will show. They are demonstrating against the recent Israeli action involving the ship barricade.”
Heim requested a patrol to drive by the next day to make sure everything was normal.
In the end, it was a typical crowd.
And there weren’t any tweets, either. The people protesting — most in their 60s or older — don’t use Twitter.
“I am on Facebook — that’s enough technology for me,” the 62-year-old Reilly said.
John Hoskyns-Abrahall, the 65-year-old spokesman for the Berks Peace Community, explained that the group has stood on the Penn Street Bridge every Friday for more than four years “to remind people we are still at war ... it costs a lot of money and a lot of lives. That’s really all it is. We don’t shout. We’re just a presence. ... It’s more of a vigil than a demonstration.”
As for the scrutiny from ITRR, he said, “If that’s the best they can do, that is truly pathetic ... more than pathetic — it’s downright un-American, might I say. It represents exactly the worst things we want to put behind us.”
Reilly howled with laughter when she was told of the e-mails.
She’s the head of Democracy In Action, which she said is “more political” than the Berks Peace Community, but joins them on occasion.
“Doing what I do and as long as I have, it’s not a surprise,” she said.
Perelman eventually e-mailed the Reading police chief to tell him: “We placed our best Twitter researcher on the task. ... She was unable to locate any planned communications for the protest. That fact is significant. Our inability to locate a communications network indicates that probably none exists (we’re pretty good at locating them if/when they exist).”
He added: “Informed knowledge of the anarchist movement would indicate that there is potential that the name ANSWER is enough to bring outside aggressive anarchists to the protest. ITRR has no intelligence to indicate either way. As discussed yesterday, if they come they will most likely act in a lone-wolf/small cell capacity outside the perimeter of free speech activity.”
When Reilly heard that, she said, “I feel like I’m living down Alice’s hole or in a Dali painting.”
The e-mails were produced by a Right-To-Know request from Scott Davis, who was mentioned by name in the Intelligence Bulletins because of his website PARevolution.com, where he has now posted copies of the e-mails.
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