Anti-Fracking Group Settles Surveillance Lawsuit With Pennsylvania

Deal doesn’t alter the cozy relationship between the energy industry and the state, says group’s founder

A grassroots anti-fracking group wrongfully cited as a terror threat in intelligence bulletins distributed by the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security (OHS) in 2010, settled its lawsuit against the state last week. The suit by the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition (GDAC) stems from the state agency’s efforts to gather intelligence on groups it deemed a threat to Pennsylvania’s critical infrastructure. The terms of the settlement are confidential.

anti-fracking activists wave signs on a bridgePhoto courtesy of GDAC Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition, a group seeking to educate the public about fracking, was swept up in an attempt to root out so-called “eco-terrorism.”

Back in 2010, the OHS hired a private security firm called the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR) to draft weekly intelligence bulletins on a number of groups, including environmental organizations. These reports were distributed to state law enforcement agencies and the private energy companies. ITRR’s bulletins identified GDAC, a small, activist group in northeast Pennsylvania, as a potential terrorist threat.

ITRR had borrowed heavily from an August 2010 FBI Bulletin warning that environmental extremism was likely to become a greater threat to the energy industry. Drafted by the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit and distributed to all field offices, the document states that “environmental extremism will become a greater threat to the energy industry owing to our historical understanding that some environmental extremists have progressed from committing low-level crimes against targets to more significant crimes over time in an effort to further the environmental extremism cause” (Look out for my detailed report on this issue in the upcoming Spring 2015 edition of EIJ). Drawing on the FBI’s assessment ITRR concluded that the “escalating conflict over natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania” could lead to an increase in “environmentalist activity or eco-terrorism.” Thus GDAC, a group seeking to educate the public about fracking, was swept up in an attempt to root out so-called extremist activity.

When the story broke in September 2010, it was widely held that the actions of OHS and ITRR were the result of mismanagement and lack of oversight. The information ITRR provided was dismissed as amateurish and criticized by law enforcement officials who questioned the security firm’s credibility.  In the wake of the scandal that followed, the OHS chief at the time, James Powers, resigned and the state’s contract with ITRR was terminated.

In a letter sent to GDAC in December 2014, Glenn Cannon, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency explained that, “this agency has no information or reason to believe that GDAC at any time in the past or currently could be fairly characterized as a ‘terrorist organization,’ as OHS and ITRR stated or implied.”

Yet, whatever the flaws in ITRR’s intelligence, interest in anti-fracking groups, and the environmental movement more broadly, is anything but unusual; it is shared by state and federal law enforcement agencies and fueled by an industry intent on silencing its critics.

Not long after the Pennsylvania intelligence bulletins were revealed, a new industry-led information sharing group, called the Marcellus Shale Operators’ Crime Committee or MSOCC, was formed. MSOCC brought together oil and gas industry security officials and law enforcement agencies to share intelligence on anti-fracking groups (I wrote about MSOCC for the Philadelphia City Paper, Pittsburgh City Paper and Earth Island Journal, last October). MSOCC members include local and state police departments, private security firms, and the FBI. One of its principal organizers, James Hansel, was a former state trooper who is now head of regional security for Anadarko Petroleum (Anadarko has also been involved in the formation of the South Texas Oilfield Crime Committee or STOCC).

According to documents obtained by Earth Island Journal MSOCC frequently exchanges information about anti-fracking activists and environmental groups.

GDAC attorney Paul Rossi says he was astonished to learn that state law enforcement is still collaborating with industry in this way. “It’s just as bad as issuing an intelligence bulletin,” he says. Rossi, who is still pursuing litigation against ITRR co-founder Mike Perelman, says the relationship between MSOCC and the state police should be investigated.

“I think it should be stopped,” he told me. “It should be challenged in the courts.” Rossi says he’s actively investigating the possibility of bringing charges against the state police for first amendment violations and will be seeking “crippling damages.”

“Corporations can’t use state government to silence opposition,” he said.       

Since 2010, the FBI too, has pursued environmental activists throughout the country. Perhaps not since infiltrating the radical animal and environmental rights movements of the 1990s and early 2000s has the FBI taken such a keen interest in green groups. Activists affiliated with Rising Tide North America, a nonviolent direct action group, have been targeted in Texas, Idaho, Seattle, and Oregon. Law enforcement agencies have  also kept close tabs on environmental groups active along the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline route. In 2012, the FBI held a day long “Strategy Meeting” with TransCanada Corporation and local law enforcement in Oklahoma. More recently, the agency has distributed a bulletin “regarding threat concerns by environmental extremists against the Keystone Pipeline expansion project.”

Many of the activists targeted have done nothing more than take photographs or videos of drill sites, compressor stations, or refineries. Wendy Lee, a professor at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, has posted thousands of photos of oil and gas development in northeast Pennsylvania to her Flickr page. She’s also been an outspoken critic of the industry and writes frequently on her blog and elsewhere about the environmental impacts of fracking. Last year, on Valentine’s Day, she received a visit from state trooper Michael Hutson who is also a member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and an active participant in MSOCC.    

According to Lee, Hutson wanted to know about a set of photographs she’d taken of a compressor station in Lycoming County, PA in 2013. This was a site she’d visited numerous times and was even part of a tour she’d given to groups of students interested in learning more about shale-gas development. Unless taking photos of industrial activity from public property is a crime, Lee had done nothing wrong.

But she doesn’t think this is the real reason Hutson came to her home. As she wrote on her blog later that day, “He wanted to know about the activists in the anti-fracking movement — and whether or not ‘they’ commit acts of vandalism and/or violence. He wanted me to give him names of ‘bad apples.’”

Lee subsequently filed a public records request seeking any and all records held by the State Police regarding herself as well as any information pertaining to Hutson’s visit to her home on February 14, 2014.

She received a reply from the state police last month denying her request because it “seeks a non-public record.” They acknowledged having an Incident Report — the only responsive record — which “details a PSP investigation into a complaint of criminal activity.” Because it relates to a criminal investigation however it is exempt from public disclosure.  

“This is an egregious violation of folks first amendment rights because it’s intimidation,” Lee says. “The relationship between the state police and industry is extremely disturbing and ultimately oppressive. It’s silencing.”

For Tom Jiunta, one of GDAC’s founders, the settlement is bittersweet. It clears the groups name but, in his view, does nothing to alter the relationship between the powerful oil and gas industry and the state. “I don’t know that anything’s changed,” he says. “You’ve cleared your name but what’s the point if you’re still being surveilled and the state is still keeping tabs on you.”

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