Ohio law enforcement issued a report late last month warning that events planned in East Palestine by the environmental activist Erin Brockovich could prompt a terrorist threat from violent extremists, according to an intelligence bulletin obtained by Yahoo News.
Dated Feb. 24 and distributed to law enforcement agencies by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Ohio Statewide Terrorism Analysis & Crime Center Terrorism Analysis Unit Situational Awareness [STACC TAU] report obtained by Yahoo News “assesses that special interest extremist groups will continue to call for changes in governmental policy, which may lead to protests in/around East Palestine and/or at the Statehouse in Columbus.”
The report then singles out the reaction by Brockovich, a whistleblower who helped build a successful lawsuit against the California utility company Pacific Gas and Electric in a case involving contaminated groundwater, to the Feb. 3 train derailment and release of toxic chemicals in East Palestine.
“On 24 February, environmental activist Erin BrockovichUSPER [United States person] is scheduled to be in East Palestine to explain residents’ legal rights. Brokovich has urged the community to use common sense and ask questions. Brockovich is also placing blame solely on Norfolk Southern.The STACC TAU assess this event could potentially increase tensions within the community.”
The report assesses the risk posed by Brockovich and other activist groups that have planned events in East Palestine in the wake of the Norfolk Southern train derailment and the controlled burn of vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic ingredient used in the production of plastic products after the derailment.
“According to the FBI, special interest terrorism differs from traditional right-wing and left-wing terrorism in that extremist special interest groups seek to resolve specific issues, rather than effect widespread political change,” the report states. “Such extremists conduct acts of politically motivated violence to force segments of society, including the general public, to change attitudes about issues considered important to the extremists’ cause.”
Brockovich, who was played by the actress Julia Roberts in the 2000 film named after her, was in East Palestine on Thursday afternoon to host an event. She did not immediately respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.
This situational awareness report is highly problematic, said former FBI agent Mike German, who worked on a recent Brennan Center report about issues with DHS fusion centers.
“Obviously, there is no reason to have included Erin Brockovich’s name or a description of her advocacy in a law enforcement intelligence report, much less a ‘situational awareness’ report by a state fusion center’s terrorism analysis unit,” German told Yahoo News. “Almost all of the activity described in this report is rightly protected by the First Amendment and poses no threat of harm, and therefore should be of no interest to terrorism intelligence units.”
Contacted by Yahoo News, the Ohio Department of Public Safety denied that it had issued a report identifying Brockovich as a possible terrorist threat.
“Erin Brokovich is listed as an ‘environmental activist’ and the brief mention of her falls under the heading of ‘various individuals or groups have responded to the train derailment,’” the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s Jay Carey told Yahoo News in an email. “The fact that she is an ‘environmental activist’ that has ‘responded to the train derailment’ is factual and has been well documented by media accounts. Any inference otherwise is incorrect.”
DHS posted the report on its intelligence sharing platform on Feb. 28, making it available to its more than 150,000 local, state and federal police and other partners nationwide.
“Fusion Centers are state and locally owned and operated centers that actively share, analyze, and operationalize threat-related information between federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, and private sector partners,” a DHS spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Yahoo News. “DHS supports Fusion Centers through the presence of DHS personnel and information sharing technology, but DHS does not run or operate Fusion Centers.”
The report also referred to the environmental group Earthjustice, which, it stated “called on Governor DeWineUSPER to declare a state of emergency,” pointing to the “contaminated waterways” and subsequent deaths of thousands of fish.
“Earthjustice works with communities across the country to protect people’s health,” Debbie Chizewer, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Midwest Regional office, told Yahoo News.
“In East Palestine, Earthjustice is supporting partners that have been exposed to toxic chemicals as they call for much needed resources, monitoring, cleanup of the contamination, as well as protections to prevent disasters like the explosion of a chemical-carrying cargo train in the future.”
The report obtained by Yahoo News stated that East Palestine police and fire department officials reported having received threats but had determined they were not credible. It was not clear, however, why they were mentioned in the report.
“This report should not have described any noncriminal activity, particularly after it stated that the terrorism analysis unit is ‘unaware of any credible direct threats regarding the East Palestine train derailment,’” German said. “This flawed reporting only clogs our national intelligence networks with inappropriate materials that undermine effective counterterrorism and law enforcement analysis, by overwhelming intelligence analysts with unhelpful misinformation that dulls the response to genuine threat warnings.”
Former DHS Acting Undersecretary John Cohen agreed that the inclusion of Brockovich’s name was, as he put it, “a bit problematic,” and said that law enforcement needed to be more careful in describing what is and is not considered a threat.
“When reporting on online or other activity that may be protected speech, authorities need to be very clear how that speech relates to threat-related activities or other public safety issues,” Cohen told Yahoo News. “It’s fine to catalog what different people are saying, but from a law enforcement perspective, they need to be clear where there is a nexus with the need for an operational response.”