HARRISBURG, Pa. – Information about an anti-BP candlelight vigil, a gay and lesbian festival and other peaceful gatherings became the subject of anti-terrorism bulletins being distributed by Pennsylvania's homeland security office, an apologetic Gov. Ed Rendell admitted.
Rendell, who claimed he'd just learned about the practice, said Tuesday that the information was useless to law enforcement agencies and that distributing it was tantamount to trampling on constitutional rights. In recent weeks, several acts of vandalism at drilling sites spurred the inclusion of events likely to be attended by environmentalists and the bulletins began going to representatives of Pennsylvania's booming natural gas industry.
A Philadelphia rally organized by a nonprofit group to support Rendell's push for higher spending on public schools even made a bulletin, as did drilling protests at a couple of Rendell's news conferences this month as he toured the state to boost support for a tax on the natural gas industry.
"I am deeply embarrassed and I apologize to any of the groups who had this information disseminated on their right to peacefully protest," Rendell said at an evening Capitol news conference.
Rendell called the practice "ludicrous" and said the fact that the state was paying for such rudimentary information was "stunning."
Still, Rendell said he was not firing his homeland security director, James Powers, but he ordered an end to the $125,000 contract with the Philadelphia-based organization, the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, that supplied the information.
The 12-page bulletin that was issued Aug. 30 included a list of municipal zoning hearings on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling, a forestry industry conference and a screening of the documentary "Gasland" as events likely to be attended by anti-drilling activists.
Aside from the drilling-related events, the bulletin mentioned other potential security concerns that it said could involve "anarchists and Black Power radicals."
It listed demonstrations by anti-war groups, deportation protesters in Philadelphia, mountaintop removal mining protesters in West Virginia and an animal rights protest at a Montgomery County rodeo.
It also included "Burn the Confederate Flag Day," the Jewish high holidays and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as potential sources of risk.
Rendell said he learned of the matter from a story in The Patriot-News of Harrisburg on Tuesday and was appalled that aides did not notify him before inking the contract a year ago.
"I think I would have said 'no' to this contract before we ever spent a dime and before we sent out any information that was wrong and violative of, in my judgment, the constitution," Rendell said.
Mike Perelman, a co-director of the institute, would not respond to questions about the contract or the bulletins, saying he does not discuss client matters.
Rendell said bulletins were being used — wrongly — as a way to satisfy a federal requirement to protect "critical infrastructure" and notify law enforcement of credible information about real threats.
He said he has asked several top aides, including state police Commissioner Frank Pawlowski, to come up with a way to satisfy the requirement.
Powers did not respond to interview requests Tuesday.
The bulletins, which went out three times a week, were not intended for public distribution.
But someone who received the Aug. 30 bulletin gave a copy to Virginia Cody, a retired Air Force officer who lives in Factoryville and is concerned about the rapid expansion of Marcellus Shale drilling in northeastern Pennsylvania.
"The idea that my government thinks that what I'm doing is worthy of anti-terrorism interest goes against everything I stand for and everything I ever stood for," said Cody, 54.
Cody gave the document to a friend, who posted it on an online forum largely read by drilling opponents in the area, she said. She would not say who gave her the bulletin, just that the person works for a private company and was an intended recipient of it.
After it was posted online, Powers sent Cody an e-mail saying that the bulletin was intended for owners, operators and security personnel associated with the state's "critical infrastructure and key resources."
He closed by saying, "We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies."