The story behind Pa.’s spying on activists

    The ACLU has called on Pennsylvania governor-elect Tom Corbett to promise not to spy on activist groups. The spy controversy erupted in September, after an opponent of natural gas drilling revealed how the state hired a Philadelphia-based intelligence company to collect information on activists in the name of protecting state infrastructure.

    Virginia Cody is the woman who touched off the controversy. Cody lives in Factoryville, Pennsylvania, just west of Scranton, where there’s an abundance of new natural gas wells.

    Cody opposes drilling for environmental reasons. A friend sent her copies of the Pennsylvania Intelligence Bulletins that detailed activities of natural gas drilling opponents, such as herself.

    At first, she thought it was a hoax, but posted it online anyway. Then she got an email from James Powers, the head of the state Department of Homeland Security.

    “Saying he wanted to keep the information in the hands of the Marcellus shale formations stakeholders and out of the hands of those who would foment dissent against those companies,” Cody said.

    Cody, who is a registered Republican, said at first, the email scared her.

    “Then I just got angry I got infuriated, its one thing to know your government is probably keeping an eye on you and then its another to have it thrown in your face. And I did,” she said.

    It wasn’t just anti-drilling activists who came under the radar. Scott Davis is a Republican who says he leans libertarian.

    Using public information on PennDOT’s website, Davis constructed a map of closed-circuit cameras in parts of the state. The Bulletins named Davis, and compared his activities to those of overseas terrorists. Davis requested additional electronic communications and raw data from the state — which amounted to almost 600 pages of information.

    “It was just as shocking in reading what’s discussed about the bulletins as it was actually reading the bulletins and realizing that the state’s not only looking at us and watching what groups and individuals are doing in the state but they’re comparing those peaceful organizations, peaceful people with career criminals, terrorists,” Davis said.

    Some of the emails show frustrated attempts by Powers and the private company — ITTR — to enlist the help of municipal police departments with gathering information on local activists.

    Governor Rendell canceled the contract with the private company, and Powers at Homeland Security resigned.

    But Pennsylvania plans on hiring four new state police officers to do the same job.

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