Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Homeland Security improperly assessed abortion groups in Wisconsin
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security conducted a threat assessment of local pro- and anti-abortion rights activists before an expected rally last year, even though they did not pose a threat to national security.
The DHS destroyed or deleted its copies of the assessment after an internal review found it violated intelligence-gathering guidelines by collecting and sharing information about "protest groups which posed no threat to homeland security," according to a department memo written last year.
The report was only shared with police in Middleton and with the director of the Wisconsin Statewide Information Center, an intelligence-gathering hub, according to the memo, which was signed by general counsel Ivan Fong and inspector general Richard Skinner.
It concluded the report was unlikely to "have any impact on civil liberties or civil rights" given its limited dissemination. But anti-abortion groups and the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin on Monday both criticized the federal government's collection of information on law-abiding protesters.
The report was compiled prior to a February 2009 meeting in Middleton by the University of Wisconsin Hospital board to decide whether to open a clinic that would offer late-term abortions.
The analyst who compiled the report — the agency's representative to Wisconsin's intelligence center — received improper guidance that he could perform the assessment "to support local police and public safety efforts," according to the memo. The analyst was given remedial training and department lawyers counseled supervisors who were involved, it said.
The memo was made public as part of a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was seeking reports from an intelligence oversight panel. After The New York Times reported on its contents in December, a lawyer representing anti-abortion activists who attended the rally asked Middleton police to release a copy of the assessment under Wisconsin's open records law.
In the department's Feb. 4 response, Capt. Noel Kakuske confirmed the department kept a copy of the report but declined to release it. He said the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which runs the intelligence center, and the Department of Homeland Security agreed the report should be withheld because it contains sensitive law enforcement information.
"Disclosure would result in the identification and public disclosure of individuals affiliated with groups on both sides of the issue, which would place them in danger from opposing radical extremists," he wrote.
On Monday, Kakuske told The Associated Press that the assessment was prepared after his department asked state officials for help identifying potential risks associated with the hospital board meeting. He said it's unusual for the department to handle a large protest, and "we wanted to make sure we had the best information we could get."
He said the department had received no specific threat in connection with the meeting, but was worried about the potential for violence.
The UW Hospital and Clinic Authority Board voted 11-3 to approve the plan to start the clinic at the Madison Surgery Center. Those attending the meeting at a suburban office building went through police checkpoints. No problems were reported, and protesters on both sides acted peacefully.
Peggy Hamill, state director of Pro-Life Wisconsin, said her group was considering other options to try to get the report, including appealing to the district attorney or suing.
"It's very disturbing that a local police department has tapped into the security apparatus of the federal government to potentially obstruct free speech," she said. "It's additionally disconcerting they will not release the documents in order for we the public to examine them."
at 12:58 PM