James Powers and the murky world of ‘Top Secret America’
A surveillance scandal in Pennsylvania has lifted the lid on corruption and waste in the US’s private intelligence industry
In October of 1952, Judge Learned Hand delivered his famous speech at the University of the State of New York passionately denouncing the culture of surveillance and suspicion that had stricken the United States at the onset of the cold war. “I believe that that community is already in process of dissolution where each man begins to eye his neighbour as a possible enemy, where nonconformity with the accepted creed, political as well as religious, is a mark of disaffection,” he said.
Almost 60 years later, Pennsylvanians have come to learn how prescient Hand’s words remain today, in post-9/11 America. This month, the state’s citizens were shocked when they discovered that their Office of Homeland Security had been issuing intelligence bulletins to local law enforcement and private industry that covered the activities of law-abiding activist groups, most prominently those opposed to natural gas drilling. The bulletins, however, weren’t generated by state law enforcement. Instead they were produced by the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, a Philadelphia- and Jerusalem-based consulting firm that received a $103,000 no-bid contract from the state homeland security director James Powers to identify threats to Pennsylvania’s critical infrastructure.
Aside from the obvious civil liberties abuses, Powers’s decision to outsource his agency’s intelligence mission demonstrates that the murky world of “Top Secret America” has trickled down to the states. Or in other words, intelligence is now big business. In an explosive two-year investigation published in July, Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William M Arkin described how the federal government has aggressively created a hidden, lucrative industry of private intelligence contractors that help the intelligence community do its job since 9/11. The downside of this system is that it’s so secretive and unwieldy that sources told Priest and Arkin that agencies and their contractors do redundant work that has of little or no intelligence value for unknown sums of taxpayers’ dollars.
These same inefficiencies also apply to Pennsylvania’s homeland security system but on a smaller scale, providing a closer look at the pathologies of secrecy, waste, and abuse created by the surveillance state. Since the leak of the ITRR intelligence bulletin, Pennsylvanians were informed that their state police already has an intelligence shop that performs similar work. On Monday they also learned that not only were the intelligence reports wasteful but positively harmful in the beginning. According to the Associated Press, leaders from the state police told a legislative hearing that the bulletins initially led law enforcement to chase down phantom threats before they directed “local stations” to ignore them.
“Every so often they have something right. Much of the time it is unsubstantiated gossip,” Major George Bivens, head of the Bureau of Criminal Investigations, told state senators, adding that the bulletins were no better than the National Enquirer.
But the most pernicious aspect of the scandal is that Powers used the state’s surveillance powers to protect private industry rather than the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. When the initial intelligence bulletin was leaked, readers found the report spent a curious amount of time on activists who opposed natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania because of concerns the drilling process results in contaminated drinking water and environmental damage.
In an email sent to what he believed was a pro-drilling advocate a few weeks ago, Powers revealed why: “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,” he said. Powers’s email is the rare, albeit unintentional, acknowledgment that he is nothing more than an apparatchik of the corporate state, a corrupt system where government power is wielded for the security of private industry first and foremost.
Fortunately Powers’s candour has led to public furore, generating rare bipartisan consensus that Powers and ITRR abused their authority. The outrage quickly led Govenor Ed Rendell to hold a press conference and apologise for the bulletins, terminate ITRR’s contract and publicly release all 137 bulletins online. Up to now, Rendell has spared Powers’s head, although legislators at Monday’s hearing continued to call for his dismissal.
During his speech, Hand described how a society can remain free, fair, and good. “The mutual confidence on which all else depends can be maintained only by an open mind and a brave reliance upon free discussion,” he said. Pennsylvania’s surveillance scandal illustrates more intimately what Top Secret America alluded to more academically: when governments and private industry collude in profitable secrecy, open minds and free discussion become threats to public order and security, and democratic government and individual rights an illusion.