World EPA assesses threats from internet, seeking to justify travel and security costs

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency has been examining posts on Twitter and other social media about Scott Pruitt, the agency’s administrator,...

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(NY Times)
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The social media efforts have come under scrutiny by some Democratic lawmakers, as well as senior officials at the EPA, who said the review had uncovered individuals sounding off against Pruitt but had found no actionable threats against him.

One top EPA official said in an interview that he had objected to the efforts when they were first discussed last year, to no avail.

Suspicious posts are referred to the EPA inspector general’s office, which is charged with investigating threats. Spokesmen for both the inspector general and the EPA declined to comment on the nature of specific threats, citing security concerns. The EPA spokesman, Jahan Wilcox, said in a statement, “Scott Pruitt has faced an unprecedented amount of death threats against him.”

But two Democratic senators said on Tuesday that an agency whistleblower had provided them with an internal EPA memo concluding that a threat assessment prepared by Pruitt’s security detail did not appear to justify the increased protection. The internal memo was prepared in February by the intelligence unit of the agency’s homeland security office, according to the senators, Tom Carper of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

The security detail’s assessment “DOES NOT employ sound analysis or articulate relevant ‘threat specific’ information appropriate to draw any resource or level of threat conclusions regarding the protection posture for the Administrator,” the memo said, according to a letter written by the two senators that called on the Senate to investigate the matter.

An individual involved in writing the memo, Mario Caraballo, has been removed from his job as deputy associate administrator of the homeland security office, although an EPA official said the dismissal was unrelated to the memo.

The senators also said the social media activity — described in their letter as “open-source review of social media” — had uncovered “no evidence of a direct threat” to Pruitt.

Pruitt is being protected round the clock by a team of about 20 people — three times as many as on his predecessor’s security detail — at an estimated cost of $3 million a year, according to EPA officials as first reported by The Associated Press. Pruitt’s calendar, recently made public, shows that the security detail accompanies him even on days when he has no scheduled work events. Whitehouse said his office had documents showing that members of Pruitt’s security detail were present during a trip to California when the administrator visited Disneyland and the Rose Bowl.

The review of social media postings turned up commentary related to the EPA and its management under Pruitt, including one “social media post in which an individual ‘stated he is not happy with some of the Administrator’s policies and wanted to express his displeasure,'” according to the letter on Tuesday from the two Democratic senators.

Carper and Whitehouse declined to release copies of the materials quoted in the letter, saying they included sensitive details about security arrangements.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who is chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the EPA., said that the Democrats had inappropriately released selected parts of an internal agency security memo.

“Any reasonable reading of these documents supports the Office of the Inspector General’s statements that Administrator Pruitt faces a ‘variety of direct death threats,'” Barrasso said in a statement. “This is exactly why members should not publicly disclose information that relates to the safety of a Cabinet member. It is also why this committee will not hold a hearing on this issue.”

Briefings on threats to Pruitt, which included posts on social media, were delivered by EPA security personnel to top agency officials, including Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, according to an employee who participated in a briefing. The employee said the briefing highlighted mostly criticisms of Pruitt’s policies as having a deleterious effect on the environment, rather than instances of threats to his personal safety.

The employee said that the agency’s social media reviews had been the subject of a recent meeting that included representatives from the agency’s inspector general’s office and its homeland security office, which had produced the internal memo critical of the threat assessments.

Wilcox, the EPA spokesman, said threat assessments were conducted within the agency’s office of compliance, using information collected from Pruitt’s security detail, the EPA’s homeland security office and its inspector general’s office.

“Americans should all agree that members of the president’s Cabinet should be kept safe from these violent threats,” Wilcox said.

Other government agencies and companies have used social media to monitor protesters or to look for information on emerging incidents. It is unclear whether the EPA has looked to social media in the past to determine threats to an administrator.

The practice, as deployed by police departments, has brought criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, and social media companies including Twitter have cut off access to certain software programs that authorities use to track postings.

Faiza Patel of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, said that she had seen a rise in social media monitoring within law enforcement agencies and cautioned that what people say in an Instagram post or a tweet can be open to interpretation.

“The fact that 10,000 people say, ‘I hate Scott Pruitt’ on Twitter doesn’t suggest to me there is a threat against Scott Pruitt,” said Patel, who is co-director of the center’s liberty and national security program. “It suggests there are a lot of people who dislike Scott Pruitt.”

If the EPA’s review of social media was aggressively monitoring critics of Pruitt, Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit group, said that it might violate federal law. He cited a 2011 case that successfully challenged the Department of Homeland Security when it moved from searching for potential terror threats to tracking individuals in the United States who had been critical of the agency and its senior officials.

“The collection of data on individuals, based solely on their criticism of public officials, raises both First Amendment and federal Privacy Act questions that need to be answered,” Rotenberg said.

Jeffrey A. Lagda, a spokesman for the EPA’s office of the inspector general, said the office is not broadly searching social media but instead focusing on individual statements considered potentially threatening. “The OIG has examined social media posts in the course of investigating alleged threats made by individuals on social media sites directed against the EPA administrator, and that have been referred to the OIG,” he said.

Various documents released in response to open records requests filed over the last year by E&E News, a trade publication, and other organizations generally revealed threats that were deemed not worthy of prosecution by authorities, or could not be substantiated.

The records show that the agency’s investigators reached out to the U.S. Postal Service, the Secret Service and the FBI, as well as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, after Pruitt received a postcard that included the phrases “Get out while you still can, Scott,” and “you are evil incarnite.”

Another offending postcard sent to Pruitt, said: “CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL!!! We are watching you. For the sake of our planet, our children & our grandchildren, will you be a reasonable man? I repeat, we are watching you!”

The agency’s inspector general initiated a criminal investigation after protesters crashed a speech Pruitt was giving at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington last spring, but the Justice Department has repeatedly declined to prosecute cases, at times citing freedom of speech provisions of the Constitution, agency records show.

In one instance, the Justice Department declined to prosecute an Arkansas man who said on Twitter last April that he wanted to kill Pruitt. After being interviewed by investigators, the man revealed he had been drinking and had meant the tweet as a “flippant comment” in response to a Rachel Maddow report on MSNBC, according to public records.

According to one internal agency memo, there have been at least 16 “threats” against Pruitt. The agency has said that amounted to a 400 percent increase from his predecessor, Gina McCarthy, who served at the end of the Obama administration, according to data provided by Senate Democrats.

Still, the lack of substantiated threats has led the EPA’s homeland security division to second-guess the work by Pruitt’s security detail and the agency’s inspector general.

“The ‘threat’ to the Administrator was being inappropriately mischaracterized by the Protective Service Detail (PSD) and the OIG,” an internal EPA memo obtained by Carper and Whitehouse said, referring to the Office of Inspector General by its initials.

The EPA’s homeland security office, in the internal agency memo in February, also questioned Pruitt’s need to travel in business or first class. The memo said that the office had “not seen any analysis to indicate why the Administrator would be at any greater risk on a commercial airline than any other passenger, or why a trained EPA PSD member could not protect the Administrator in a different location on the aircraft.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

ERIC LIPTON, LISA FRIEDMAN and KENNETH P. VOGEL © 2018 The New York Times

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