HARRISBURG, PA – In an almost inevitable conclusion to a scandal over the hiring of an unscrupulous intelligence firm, state Homeland Security Director James F. Powers Jr. has resigned. While many consider the resignation to be scapegoating, others believe it represents an acknowledgment of wrong and a commitment to avoid such privacy intrusions in the future.
The firm in question, the Institute on Terrorism Research and Response, was hired by Powers a year ago to track threats to Pennsylvania infrastructure. The firm’s techniques came into question when recent reports revealed it was tracking several organizations with no known history of violence, such as the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth, or Hands Across Sands, who had hosted peaceful protests at the state capital. Also monitored, according to the York Daily Record, were a gay and lesbian festival, a screening of a movie about the state’s Marcellus Shale natural gas rush, and a rally in support of the governor’s school spending priorities.
That peaceful groups could be targeted for surveillance should not come as a surprise to anyone who has lived in the United States post-9/11. The event instilled a fear in the public consciousness which may have waned somewhat in recent days but has not disappeared. As a result, government has taken a variety of controversial steps in an effort to prevent future terrorist acts. This particular instance may be the most recent example of overreaching, but it is not the first and likely will not be the last.
From using the Patriot Act to check on library patrons’ records to confiscating electronic devices at the border with no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, such ham-fisted techniques have abounded over the past decade.
Spying on peaceful groups, sadly, is not unique in this environment of paranoia. According to the ACLU, the national Department of Homeland Security has also targeted peaceful groups, including an eight-month study of the Nation of Islam, a religious organization with a history of advocacy in the United States. Similarly, the ACLU says such groups as abortion opponents, environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and even the Audubon Society have been subject to government probes.
What is the solution to such oversteps by government? The resignation of Powers was the result of his misstep being publicized. Hopefully, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania will be more discerning with future security measures. As with any toxic secret, the remedy is sunlight.