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Homeland Security denies tracking political rallies

Peter Hecht / Sac Bee | July 7 2006

Devlin Donnelly of the Chico Peace and Justice Center wants to know why the state Office of Homeland Security received advance word of its April 18 anti-war demonstration in Chico.
"I certainly think that our organization and organizations like us should not be the concern of the homeland security office," Donnelly said. "We're a peaceful organization. It's quite a waste of taxpayer money and violation of our rights."

Apparently, California homeland security officials agree.
On Thursday, officials at the Office of Homeland Security released four months of daily security briefings and other documents in an attempt to show they are not stockpiling information on political or protest groups.

In so doing, they provided more than 80 daily briefing reports mentioning bomb threats to bridges, security breaches at refineries and a nuclear power plant, and other suspicious activities.

The Office of Homeland Security - which heads a $232 million, federally funded information network for state, federal and local law enforcement agencies in California - has been on the defensive since revelations it received lists of scheduled protest rallies and political demonstrations in California.

The materials were included in information sent to the Office of Homeland Security from a Virginia-based private corporation, SRA International. The group has a $2 million contract and began providing services in February to gather and share information with the state that may be relevant to preventing terrorist incidents in California.

Chris Bertelli, deputy direct of of the state homeland security office, said the department undertakes no direct surveillance of any individuals or groups and serves only as an official informational clearinghouse for law enforcement and emergency response agencies.

"Unequivocally, we never have monitored a political rally or any type of political activity in California," Bertelli said.

On Thursday, his office made available stacks of documents compiled for daily security briefings. The information ranged from reams of newspaper clippings to academic articles analyzing terrorist threats to California, the nation and the world.

Law enforcement security briefings also covered such things as foreign nationals detained at Los Angeles International Airport and the San Ysidro border crossing between March and June. Also included were May reports on a recreational vessel entering the security zone of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant, an unspecified "security breach" at a refinery in Martinez and two people "asking suspicious questions" at an Alameda marine facility.

A June 22 briefing to the state office also mentioned "suspicious conversations in a mosque in San Diego."

Pages providing details on the daily security reports were omitted from the agency's documents made available for reporters to view - but not copy - by orders from the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bertelli said the state agency vehemently protested to SRA International after the private firm sent a March 7 briefing that included a list of upcoming political demonstrations. It ranged from a protest against Canadian seal slaughter in San Francisco to pro-immigration rallies stretching from Tijuana to the Bay Area to anti-war demonstrations in Chico, Fresno, Hollywood and Walnut Creek.

In another briefing April 10, the office received a copy of a San Francisco Chronicle article, which listed a National Day of Action on immigrant justice in San Jose and smaller rallies in Gilroy, Redwood City and Hayward.

"Unequivocally, we have never monitored a political rally or any type of political activity in California," Bertelli said.

He said California's director for security information analysis, Bill Hipsley, instructed SRA international not to include such information in future briefings.

"He made it clear that our policy was not to monitor political organizations," Bertelli said.

Bertelli said the agency also declined to distribute the material to the four state Terrorism Threat Assessment Centers in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. The so-called "fusion centers" allow state, local and federal agencies to share information by region.

Responding to a Los Angeles Times story on the state tracking demonstrations by political and anti-war groups, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California on Wednesday filed public records requests with the Office of Homeland Security and the state attorney general's office.

ACLU attorney Mark Schlosberg said the civil rights groups want details on state information gathering on public speech protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"There is no reason why a homeland security agency should have information about protest activities," Schlosberg said.

He said the ACLU wants to know the terms of the contract between the state and SRA International, asking: "What regulations are in place to protect the privacy of individuals and organizations participating in lawful activity?"

Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer, said Lockyer notified state homeland security officials April 21 that collecting data on protest activities was inappropriate.

"The attorney general believes that the governor shares his commitment to providing the people of the state an effective anti-terrorism program that fully respects the First Amendment," Dresslar said.

Three years ago, the state Justice Department attracted similar controversy when its California Anti-Terrorism Information Center admitted compiling information on anti-war protests.

Dresslar said the agency - now called the state Terrorism Assessment Threat Center - today operates under strict rules that no information is "collected or distributed unless we have reason to believe that a crime has occurred or will occur."

Much of the information collected by the state Office of Homeland Security was academic in nature. For example, documents included a study by three University of Southern California professors assessing the impact and recovery time from a terrorist attack on the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, which account for 600,000 in jobs and $250 billion in trade.

But Donnelly of the Chico Peace and Justice Center still doesn't know why his group even got a mention in the Office of Homeland Security documents.

"I certainly don't buy their statement that they have no interest," said Donnelly, who says he wonders why police are present at his group's rallies. "I am suspicious of vehement denials that they're monitoring political groups.

"If they have nothing to hide, why do they keep claiming they have nothing to hide?"

 

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