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Top DHS Officials Went Ballistic Over Rolling Stone Contributor Michael Hastings’ OWS Report, Internal Emails Show

(Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District; Edited: JR / TO)

Senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials debated whether they should pressure award-winning Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings to “pull down” a report he published on the magazine’s web site about the agency’s role in monitoring Occupy Wall Street (OWS), claiming it was riddled with “inaccuracies,” according to hundreds of pages of internal DHS emails related to OWS Truthout obtained under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request we filed last October.

But it wasn’t Hastings’ February 28 report that was incorrect. Rather, it was an unauthorized five-page internal report prepared last October by DHS employees, who acted “outside the scope of their authority” and violated “privacy standards,” according to the emails, about the potential threat posed by OWS that was flawed. The internal report strongly suggested DHS had been mining social media, such as OWS’s Twitter feeds, for intelligence on the protest movement.

That document, which Hastings had accurately represented in his story, formed the basis for his Rolling Stone exclusive. It was found in more than 5 million hacked emails from private intelligence firm Stratfor that Wikileaks released earlier this year. Hastings obtained the internal report from WikiLeaks, which entered into an investigative partnership with Rolling Stone.

It was Hastings’ characterization of the internal report that struck a nerve with top officials at DHS, who spent two days discussing how they should publicly respond to it, according to the heavily redacted emails, which also show that DHS learned about Hastings’ story through a Google alert that contained the keywords, “Department of Homeland Security.”

Robert Davis, a former USA Today reporter who left the news business in 2008 to work for DHS in its Office of External Affairs, proposed issuing a statement in response to Hastings’ report.

“Rolling Stone has posted a blog with a link to a document with the DHS seal and NPPD/IP [National Protection and Programs Directorate/Infrastructure Program] markings that was posted to HSIN [DHS’s Homeland Security Information Network] without approval. Here is the draft statement I would like to send to PA [office of public affairs] asap,” Davis said in a February 28 email he sent to senior DHS officials after Hastings’ story went live.

The statement was redacted from the emails DHS turned over to Truthout. HSIN is an internal “web-based portal” controlled by DHS where information is shared between state, local and federal officials. DHS’s website says NPPD’s mission is “to advance the Department’s risk-reduction mission,” which “requires an integrated approach that encompasses both physical and virtual threats and their associated human elements.”

The emails show that Hastings contacted DHS via email on February 28 at 5:14 pm, about 90 minutes before his story was published, seeking a comment about the internal report. In his inquiry, according to one DHS email, he noted that Stratfor had the document. But DHS officials said in internal emails they were unaware how Stratfor obtained it.

“We have no insight into why Stratfor was mentioned or if they somehow obtained a copy,” William Flynn, DHS’s acting assistant secretary in the office of infrastructure protection, wrote in an email dated February, after Hastings was interviewed about his story and mentioned the hacked Stratfor emails. “Records indicate that they do not have a hsin account.”

“Who has access to the network?” states a February 29 email written by an official whose name is redacted that was sent to Peter Boogaard, DHS’s deputy press secretary, Brent Colburn, assistant secretary for public affairs and Matthew Chandler, DHS press secretary. “Also, how does it violate privacy policy if it’s [the information about OWS cited in the internal report] is all from articles?”

“It’s on HSIN – basically all fusion centers and a fair number of state and locals,” Chandler responded. “The doc was released by wikileaks however.”

“And we stated a number of times that our privacy standards precluded us from monitoring the protests,” Boogaard added.

Several of the names in Boogaard’s and Chandler’s reply emails were also redacted.

Flynn explained how the internal report ended up in DHS’s web-based information sharing network.

“Background: IP [Infrastructure program] and (POD) [Partnership and Outreach division] complies an open source report on critical infrastructure which is posted to HSIN,” Flynn wrote in an email to top DHS officials February 29. “The contract for this service recently changed and the new contractor inappropriately conducted some ‘analysis’ to the open source information (in this case). When it was brought to my attention the report was pulled (other steps have also been taken). However the fed staff undertook a thorough review and every source is traditional media. The report references social media resources but that was found in traditional sources. No monitoring of social media took place.”

In response to a query from a colleague about whether the internal report Hastings wrote about was indeed posted to HSIN, Michael Beland, chief of staff in DHS’s office of infrastructure protection, said, “We are still working on the dates, but, based upon the document and our recollection, it was posted to hsin and one cannot access the materials on hsin without a password. Once we get the dates, we’ll pass them along, but that may not be before you push this [statement] out.”

The publicity surrounding the internal report upset DHS employees in the Intelligence & Analysis (I&A) division, who worked hard “to make sure I&A adn the fusion centers didn’t create any reports like this,” Scott Matthews, a senior privacy analyst for intelligence at I&A, wrote in a February 29 email to NPPD officials.

I&A is “not very happy (me too) …” Matthews wrote.

Caitlin Durkovich, NPPD’s chief of staff, suggested reasoning with Hastings.

“I think we should consider calling Hastings and help him understand our mission,” she wrote immediately after his story was published.

A day later, after Hastings’ story started to attract attention on social media and received coverage by blogs and independent news organizations, Durkovich sent another email to her colleagues.

“I think we need to pick up the phone, and call Hastings. National security is his beat, but he can be provocative so we need to have a clear sey [sic] of tps [talking points]. Let’s explain our mission, to include what FPS’s [DHS’s federal protective service’s] role has been in OWS. And push back on the inaccuracies,” Durkovich wrote.

A report Truthout published earlier this year based on other OWS-related documents obtained from DHS showed that FPS, which is DHS’s police force, removed and arrested protesters in Portland who were gathering on federal property.

John Sandweg, special counselor to Napolitano, agreed with Durkovich. He said in a February 28 email to a dozen senior DHS officials, “Definitely think that the more we can push back on inaccuracies the better. That said, assuming [Hastings] isn’t going to pull down the blog post, with other similar privacy related issues out there, we need a clear statement that explains that this [internal] report was drafted in violation of our privacy standards.”

Boogaard also suggested the agency “oush [sic] back stronger.”

“We never approved this approach and the individuals who piblished [sic] it [the internal DHS report] did so without approval from nppd leadership,” Boogaard wrote in a February 29 email to Davis, Durkovich and other DHS officials.

Boogaard responded to Durkovich by saying he would be “happy to talk with him [Hastings], but need the talkers.”

“Also, still think we need the pushback statement,” Boogaard wrote in an email to Durkovich and other senior DHS officials. Durkovich characterized a statement Boogaard circulated internally the day Hastings’ story was posted on Rolling Stone’s website as “over reacting [sic],” according to an email Boogaard sent to officials in Napolitano’s office and in the public affairs division.

“I disagree,” Boogaard said about Durkovich’s characterization of the prepared statement, “but wanted to make sure others didn’t have a similar opinion.”

It’s unclear if Boogaard or any other DHS official ended up speaking with Hastings as Durkovich had suggested or attempted to contact him. Reached by Truthout Tuesday afternoon, Hastings said he could not comment about the internal discussions revolving around his report without first receiving approval from Rolling Stone, which he was unable to obtain by the time this story was published. [UPDATE 8/1/2012: Hastings spoke to Cenk Uygur, host of The Young Turks, Wednesday evening about the DHS emails that called into question his report on OWS. UPDATE 8/5/2012: In a separate interview with DemocracyNow, Hastings said DHS officials never contacted him.]

Boogaard later said in another email he did not believe “it is to our benefit to re-engage with Rolling Stone.” So, he and other DHS officials sought approval from the White House for the statement they had prepared, according to a February 29 email Boogaard sent to a colleague who inquired about the status of the statement.

“Plan is to push back on the inaccuracies and issue the statement, but we are waiting on the wh [White House],” Boogaard said.

However, the plan changed. Boogaard said the statement would only be used “for any requests [for comment] that follow.” But in another email he said the plan changed again and that the “wh [White House] doesn’t want us to react [to Hastings’ report] unless we get more requests” for comment from “traditional media,” and, finally, “specific requests,” which apparently never happened.

The emails also show Suzanne Spaulding, DHS’s deputy undersecretary in the NPPD who oversees FPS, was also asked to review Hastings’ report and the statement the agency issued in response.

Social Media Monitoring Claims Disputed

Hastings reported that the internal DHS document “goes on to sum up the history of Occupy Wall Street and assess its ‘impact’ on everything from financial services to government facilities. Many of the observations are benign, and appear to have been culled from publicly available sources.”

“But the DHS also appears to have scoured OWS-related Twitter feeds for much of their information,” Hastings wrote. “The report includes a special feature on what it calls Occupy’s ‘social media and IT usage,’ and provides an interactive map of protests and gatherings nationwide – borrowed, improbably enough, from the lefty blog Daily Kos. ‘Social media and the organic emergence of online communities,’ the report notes, have driven the rapid expansion of the OWS movement.'”

Durkovich took issue with that assertion. In a February 29 email she sent to her DHS colleagues, which included Amy Shlossman, Napolitano’s deputy chief of staff, Durkovich said much of the information contained in the internal report’s social media section was “derived” from Daily Kos.

“If you go to the Daily Kos site, it appears that much of the social media section was derived for the [sic] from the OWS page it keeps,” she wrote.

Boogaard suggested, according to another email, that any statement DHS issues should point out that the information in the internal report was generated from “open source media” and not from surveillance of OWS.

Flynn, reiterating previous comments he made in earlier emails, disputed claims in the internal report that DHS monitored social media to gather information about OWS’s activities.

“No monitoring of social media took place,” Flynn wrote in a February 29 email.

He adds in another email, “Just to be very clear … they did not look at social media. They looked at traditional media reporting which may have been reporting/quoting social media. This is an important distinction.”

But Boogaard said regardless of whether the internal report prepared by DHS employees contained information culled from news articles as opposed to direct monitoring of social media it still violated the agency’s “privacy standards.”

“Just talked to our chief privacy officer,” Boogaard wrote February 29 in an email sent to senior DHS officials. “At the very least they violated the situational awareness pii [personal identifiable information] because these individuals did not havew [sic] the authority to be looking at social media and drawing conclusions based on that analysis. That is why we changed the language [in the prepared statement] to privacy standards.”

Spaulding, NPPD’s deputy undersecretary, however, challenged the chief privacy officer’s conclusions. In a February 29 email responding to the one Boogaard sent following his conversation with the chief privacy officer, Spaulding said she spoke with Flynn, who said the contractors that prepared the internal report “were not looking at social media. They execeeded their writ by doing analysis, but it was based on traditional media sources.”

In the event “traditional media” contacted DHS about whether the agency was monitoring social media, Boogaard was ready to release a White House-approved “background” statement explaining when DHS monitors social media and for what purpose. “Background” means reporters could use the information but cannot attribute it to a DHS official.

“Congress requires DHS’ National Operations Center (NOC) to ‘provide situational awareness and establish a common operating picture for the entire federal government and for state, local, and tribal governments as appropriate, in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack and ensure that critical terrorism and disaster-related information reaches government decision makers.’ Under this requirement, the NOC monitors social media only for situational awareness purposes during times of crisis, such as a terrorist attack or earthquake.”

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