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Is Homeland Security Spying on You?

Since 9/11 the United States has spent a staggering $791 billion on homeland security, according to Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellmann of the National Priorities Project. In a post for TomDispatch they describe the Department of Homeland Security, which was formally created in 2002, as a "miniature Pentagon." It brought together 22 existing government departments, a kind of bureaucratic black hole into which billions of taxpayer dollars are funneled.

A fracking fluid pit sits next to a drill site near Waynesburg, Pa. on April 13, 2012. (Mladen Antonov / AFP)By this measure the $103,000 no-bid contract awarded by the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security to the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR) in 2009 is a drop in the bucket. ITRR, a private security firm headed by a former PA chief of police, was given the task of providing the department with thrice-weekly intelligence bulletins that identified threats to the state's critical infrastructure. Instead of focusing on real threats, however, ITRR turned its attention to law-abiding activist groups including Tea Party protesters, pro-life activists, and anti-fracking environmental organizations. The bulletins included information about when and where local environmental groups would be meeting, upcoming protests, and anti-fracking activists' internal strategy. As I recently wrote in my Investigative Fund/Earth Island Journal story, the bulletins were then distributed to local police chiefs, state, federal, and private intelligence agencies, and the security directors of the natural gas companies, as well as industry groups and PR firms. The state's Department of Homeland Security was essentially providing intelligence to the natural gas industry about their detractors. And Pennsylvania taxpayers were footing the bill.

Perhaps because it was a relatively small contract the Pennsylvania spy scandal was brushed aside as an unfortunate mistake. Then-Governor Ed Rendell, whose own ties to the natural gas industry have recently been exposed, called the episode "deeply embarrassing." The state terminated its contract with ITRR, a one-day Senate hearing was held, and the matter largely forgotten. But the Pennsylvania story is not an isolated case. In fact, it represents a larger pattern of corporate and police spying on activists and everyday citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.

A report published by the Center for Media and Democracy last month detailed how Homeland Security fusion centers, corporations, and local law enforcement agencies have teamed up to spy on Occupy Wall Street protesters. Fusion centers, created between 2003 and 2007 by the Department of Homeland Security, are centers for the sharing of federal-level information between the CIA, FBI, US military, local governments, and more. The more than 70 fusion centers, whose primary task is to analyze and share information with public and private actors, are part of Homeland Security's growing "Information Sharing Environment" (ISE). According to their website, ISE "provides analysts, operators, and investigators with integrated and synthesized terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and homeland security information needed to enhance national security and help keep our people safe." The other big domestic public-private intelligence sharing ventures are Infragard, managed by the FBI's Cyber Division Public/Private Alliance Unit, and the Domestic Security Alliance Council (DSAC), which openly states that its mission includes "advancing the ability of the U.S. private sector to protect its employees, assets and proprietary information."

The little known DSAC brings together representatives from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and some of the nation's most powerful corporations. Twenty-nine corporations and banks are on the DSAC Leadership Board, including Bank of America, ConocoPhillips, and Wal-Mart. The Department of Homeland Security also has a Private Sector Information-Sharing Working Group, which includes representatives from more than 50 Fortune 500 companies. They have pushed for increased funding of public-private intelligence sharing partnerships, largely through the expansion of fusion centers. According to the Department of Homeland Security website, "Our nation faces an evolving threat environment, in which threats not only emanate from outside our borders, but also from within our communities. This new environment demonstrates the increasingly critical role fusion centers play to support the sharing of threat related information between the federal government and federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial partners."

But these fusion centers are only part of the picture. Corporations are also investing heavily in building up their own intelligence networks. As I reported in Earth Island Journal, annual spending on corporate security and intelligence is now roughly $100 billion, double what it was a decade ago (To give some perspective, the DHS budget was about $60 billion last year). If cyber security and surveillance were included, the figure would be much higher. In this light it is hardly surprising that groups like the Pennsylvania-based anti-fracking group Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition and Occupy Wall Street have been swept up in the national security net. As Mike German, an FBI special agent for 16 years who now works for the ACLU told me, "These systems and this type of collection is so rife with inappropriate speculation and error — both intentional and unintentional — that your good behavior doesn't protect you."

As the impact of climate change becomes more acute, the fossil fuel industry is seeking to protect itself from an increasingly restless environmental movement. One way of doing so is to paint the opposition as extremists or potential terrorists. "It's the new politics of the petro-state," Jeff Monaghan, a researcher with the Surveillance Studies Center at Queen's University in Ontario, said. "It's like this is not only environmental activism it's activism against our way of life. It's activism against the economy and the system. Because the system is now a petro system."

Indeed, because of its enormous shale gas reserves, the United States is already being talked of as a future petro-state, and shale gas development a matter of national security. In his keynote address at the 2011 Shale Gas Insight Conference sponsored by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, Tom Ridge, former head of the Department of Homeland Security, described shale gas as vital to US national security. Everything that goes along with it — the rigs, pipelines, and compressor stations (not to mention air and water pollution) — will be viewed as part of the nation's critical infrastructure. According to the Center for Media and Democracy report, "The stated purpose of protecting 'critical infrastructure/key resources' has come to serve as the single largest avenue for corporate involvement in the 'homeland security' apparatus."

So the kind of public-private partnerships that led to the surveillance of environmental groups in Pennsylvania and Occupy Wall Street protesters in Phoenix are likely to receive more and more funding as the Homeland Security boondoggle nears the $1 trillion mark. It is part of an ever-widening corporate-police state, which gives new meaning to the very notion of a "fusion center."