Terrorists at the rodeo


We briefed Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s apologetic reaction to the embarrassing revelation yesterday in the Harrisburg Patriot-News that the Pennsylvania Homeland Security Department had paid a Phillie outfit, the Institute of Terrorism Researcch and Response, to track really scary events like gay pride events and PTAs. I’m only slightly exaggerating.

Here’s our brief:

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell terminated a contract with an Israeli-American agency that tracked peaceful protests and reported them as potential terrorist threats.

Rendell said Tuesday that he was "deeply embarrassed" by revelations of a $125,000 contract with the Philadelphia-based Institute of Terrorism Research and Response.

The state’s Office of Homeland Security contracted the institute to track threats, and then relayed its reports to a large number of law enforcement and private groups.

Its "alerts" included an animal rights protest, a natural gas drilling protest, a gay and lesbian festival and a rally to support a Rendell-backed campaign for boosted education funding.

"Good Lord, and to think that we spent $125,000 on this at a time when every penny is dire for us is a further embarrassment," Rendell said.

The institute, which claims to have a Jerusalem office, is run by directors who among other claims list experience in Israel’s security services. It also runs training programs in Israel.

Now, some coverage has already elided into questions of whether the ITRR actually spied on the targets — as in, attended the events, took photos, etc.

That would certainly be bad, from a privacy perspective. There’s another possibility, however, that would be worse from a waste-of-money perspective: That some staffer — an eager intern? — at the ITRR simply picked out leftie-looking events from various daybooks and web sites, cut and paste them into a "report" and clicked send.

It sounds that way — I mean, rodeo protests? Movie screenings? It seems a stretch that anyone bothered to even staff these.

Groups like the ITRR trade on their Israeli bonafides — and it appears that ITRR can boast these, to a certain degree. (And does boast them, to an extensive degree.) You can’t run the kind of tour described in this Jewish News of Greater Phoenix story (pdf) without contacts inside Israel’s security establishment.

On the other hand, there are elements of this outfit that ring my "amateur hour" alarms, and not just the questionable "tracking" it ran for Pennsylvania. Laura Rozen at Politico has done yeoman’s work here, finding the LinkedIn profiles for two of the group’s directors. Aaron Richman’s Israel security experience appears to add up to a decade or so as a narc on the police force — nothing to sneeze at, mind you, but what does it have to do with tracking terrorists?  Michael Perelman has a 33-year blank in his online curriculum vitae, between obtaining his degree at Iowa Wesleyan in 1971 and joining the company in 2004. Laura found out that he spent part of that time, at least, as a captain on the police force in York, Pa.

Here was another flag: Richman telling the Phoenix Jewish News…

A lot of the sources are Druse, who are Arab speakers and who have strong intelligence and military backgrounds to analyze the information.

It’s hard to explain why this sounds off to anyone even nominally acquainted with Israel’s security services. Yes, Druse are Arabic speakers, and yes, they disproportionately rise to high ranks in the security establishment … but so do plenty of Jewish Arabic speakers. It’s kind of like a talent agent pitching an ingenue to a casting director and saying sotto voice: "She’s from California, you know. Southern California."

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