Why Homeland Security Is Focusing On ‘Suspicious Activity’ Outside Refineries

The City of Houston produced this video showing how to spot a terrorist

(Updated October 5, 2012) As part of his work as a community organizer for environmental causes, Juan Parras takes photos of refineries and petrochemical plants near the Houston Ship Channel. Sometimes, he says he’s made to feel like a criminal for doing it. 

“It’s making it seem like you’re committing a crime by taking a picture. And when we get to the point where we can’t take pictures of facilities because they feel threatened, then I think we’re crossing the line,” Parras tells StateImpact Texas.

Parras guesses he’s been stopped and questioned by police outside the big plants no less than ten times since 9/11.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact

Juan Parras outside a refinery in the Manchester neighborhood of East Houston

“In some cases, they’ve actually wanted to delete the pictures we took,” he says. When that happened, Parras says he just told the officers he didn’t know how to do that.

People who photograph or videotape “critical infrastructure”– what the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) calls things like  refineries, bridges and airports — might be plotting an attack. Or at least that’s the message the government is publicizing in an effort to encourage all of us to report suspicious people.

An anti-terroism video produced by the City of Houston shows a woman taking notes and photos at a light rail station. When a police officer approaches, she tries to leave. The next shot is of the woman being held in the backseat of a patrol car.

The Houston video was funded by the DHS which also has its own videos. In one, a black-clad man is seen videotaping a bridge while the announcer says “before they strike, many terrorists watch and study their targets.”

Dave Fehling/StateImpact

Photo taken by a StateImpact reporter who was spotted by Pasadena police along a highway that crosses near several large refineries.

While the message is part of the broader “see something, say something” public awareness campaign, there are other, more narrowly-focused initiatives like DHS’s Buffer Zone Protection Program. That aims to teach local police how to spot and thwart terrorist attacks on facilities including refineries. The program is one source for a total of $1.1 billion that the DHS has sent via grants to its state counterpart, the Texas Homeland Security office.

A spokesperson for the Texas Homeland Security office said it has been training local officers on how to spot suspicious activity in general, not specifically at petrochemical plants and refineries.

The office is part of the state’s “fusion center”. The nationwide network of fusion centers was the subject of a recent study by George Washington University. A Senate subcommittee issued a  report highly critical of fusion centers, citing a Texas sheriff deputy’s intelligence report on a man under a bridge as an example of how many such reports had “nothing of value”.

Collecting Personal Data on Photographers

In July of 2010,  Austin-based photographer Lance Rosenfield was on assignment for ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative reporting project, which was doing stories on accidents and pollution releases from BP’s big refinery complex in Texas City.

“The pictures that I was after were just painting a portrait of the town and the refinery. I wasn’t after anything sensitive and I wasn’t acting suspicious,” Rosenfield tells StateImpact Texas.

Courtesy Lance Rosenfield

Freelance photographer Lance Rosenfield

But after getting shots of a “Welcome to Texas City” sign along a highway that borders the refinery, Rosenfield noticed he was being followed by a private security truck. When he pulled into a gas station, a couple of Texas City police patrol cars pulled in.

Rosenfield showed officers the photos on his digital camera. Satisfied he had done nothing wrong, the officers said he could go. But they also insisted on giving the personal information they’d collected from Rosenfield to a security officer from BP who also showed up at the gas station.

“And that’s when I said, look, what’s going on here? This isn’t something I’m approving of. And why are you sharing my information with a private company?” Rosenfield remembers.

Under federal regulations, the chemical industry is actually required to promptly report security “incidents” to the National Response Center, providing “as much … information as possible,” including addresses and phone numbers of people apparently like Rosenfield.

Texas City Police would not comment to StateImpact Texas. But in an email, BP said that Texas City police were simply providing “BP with the information needed to make a report” to the National Response Center.

Congress is reviewing the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Program. CFAT sets the rules for how plants have to have security plans to reduce the risk of a terrorist attack.

‘Dumbing-down’ What’s Suspicious

Such information-sharing is troubling to one former FBI counter-terrorism agent.

“These programs sort of dumb down what is considered suspicious and suggest something like photography or note-taking are suspicious,” says Mike German, now with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington.

“Right now, the federal regulation requires that police have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before they put information into an intelligence-sharing system, and that’s really the standard that we think needs to be followed,” German told StateImpact.

But is just the opposite happening? Where nothing suspicious is found, yet the person’s information is sent off to a government database?

“[That's] exactly the problem with this program,” says German.

An FBI spokesperson in Houston, Shauna Dunlap, said the Bureau doesn’t share information with private companies unless there’s a “credible threat.” However, she added that by collecting data on what “may seem like nothing,” patterns can be detected that otherwise might go unnoticed.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Marhals Office

Barry Walter Bujol Jr. was sentenced to twenty years in prison for providing support to Al Qaeda.

Asked if there had been any cases in Texas where someone reported as “suspicious” near a refinery was ever actually linked to terrorism, Dunlap pointed to the case of Barry Walter Bujol Jr., a Texas Prairie View A&M student who was arrested at the Port of Houston in May 2010.

Bujol Jr. was sentenced earlier this year to 20 years in prison for allegedly providing material support to Al Qaeda. But his arrest at the port was not because he was taking photos of the refineries and petrochemical plants that line it. Instead, it was because he went there to board a ship after being set-up in an FBI sting. Court documents said that among Bujol’s interests was destroying U.S. drone aircraft. At his sentencing, he reportedly denied wanting to hurt anyone.

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