Thursday, September 16, 2010

Intelligence and Civil Disobedience

There has always been a fine line that the intelligence community, particularly the domestic intelligence community, has had to draw between civil disobedience, criminal disobedience and terrorist actions. The first is constitutionally protected free speech; the second is a ‘simple’ police response-investigation issue while the third requires extensive intelligence collection-processing and potentially pre-emptive law enforcement actions. Unfortunately the lines between the three are blurred and police agencies frequently error on the pro-active side.

A good example of this problem was seen this week in a controversy in Pittsburg, PA involving the distinction between environmental activists and eco-terrorists. It involves the publication of a recent Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security Intelligence Bulletin. According to the news article about the controversy many local activists and politicians objected to the listing of public meetings where there might be a “potential public safety hazard”

Civil Disobedience

The bulletin lists a number of public meetings scheduled by local government agencies to discuss gas drilling operations. The meetings were listed in the intelligence documents because they “have been singled out for attendance by anti-Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas drilling activists” (pg 3). Now, simple attendance is protected (and encouraged) free speech; packing the meeting, signage and even periodic interruptions of the meeting fall under protected civil disobedience. Disruption of the meeting or interfering in the operation of the government body at the meeting slips over the line into criminal disobedience and requires police action.

If there has been a notice of intent to disrupt the meetings (not mentioned in the intelligence bulletin, so there probably wasn’t one) then the police would be expected to have sufficient personnel on hand to stop the disruption. If there was a past history of these groups disrupting public meetings (again, not mentioned in this report, so not probably a factor) police would again be expected to be able to respond promptly. Lacking either of those two situations, police forces have no reason to have additional officers on site. But, they still might want to know about the situation in case they are called to handle a disturbance at one of the meetings.

The critical civil liberties question here is not so much about police responding to criminal disobedience (though how they respond is always a potential concern), but how they prepare. If large numbers of police show up in the meeting room before any problems occur, there is a concern about their presence stifling free speech. If they keep files on, or conduct surveillance on, people who are exercising their free speech right, or commit simple civil disobedience because they might escalate to criminal disobedience, there are privacy concerns.

Of course, if political activists escalate to criminal disobedience or terrorist attacks, the public is going to ask why they weren’t stopped before they got to that level. And the public and politicians are going to blame the police or intelligence services for their inefficiency. Everyone in law enforcement or counter-terrorism knows this; this is why they frequently over-react to civil disobedience.

FBI Notes Increasing Activity

The controversy arises here because people have been linking the listing of these meetings with a separate entry five pages later in the intelligence bulletin. This entry is apparently an excerpt from an FBI report on environmental activists targeting the energy industry. It notes (pg 8) that: “To date, the energy industry has encountered little more than vandalism, trespassing and threats by environmental extremists. But this pattern is beginning to morph - transitioning to more criminal, extremist measures”.

The quoted FBI report goes on to note that this may continue to escalate. They base this extrapolation on their “historical understanding that some environmental extremists have progressed from committing low-level crimes against targets to more significant crimes over time in an effort to further the environmental extremism cause”.

There is nothing in this bulletin that links the political meetings with the energy industry being targeted by extremists. According to the article that connection was made in the mind of some local politicians, politicians on both sides of the issue. This jumping to conclusions is common to many politicians and is the reason that the intelligence community does not like sharing their information and assessments with politicians.

On Going Problem

Finding the proper balance between protecting the public and property from illegal actions taken in the name of a political cause and protecting the individual’s freedom of speech and freedom of expression is always difficult. If we see the recent increase in home-grown plots toward political violence continue or escalate, finding and maintaining that proper balance will become even more difficult.

No comments:

/* Use this with templates/template-twocol.html */