A Texas City police officer, Cpl. Tom Robison, detained freelance photographer Lance Rosenfieldduring the first week of July 2010 for taking pictures of public signs. The law enforcement harassment of Mr. Rosenfield resembles hundreds of similar acts around the country, where taking pictures on public land in the bright of day is mistaken for “surveillance.” The Coast Guard and BP have recently raised eyebrows along the Louisiana gulf coastline for blocking photographers’ access to beaches and marshland under the pretext of safety for “boom maintenance workers,” according to independent photojournalist Georgianne Nienaber. See: Kevin Gosztola, “Embedded Media Only Allowed to Cover Oil Disaster?” (May 20, 2010). Rosenfield’s experience – which involved a roadside interrogation by an officer attached to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force – provides added insight into how law enforcement collaboration with private industry threatens privacy rights and civil liberties.
Throughout the growing homeland security bureaucracy, government agencies collaborate more and more closely with private companies. Technology firms like MEMEX design and run information-sharing databases for fusion centers. “Critical Infrastructure Support Groups” connect law enforcement with industrial security firms for power plants, hospitals, and transportation providers. New systems like Infragard give private industry access to sensitive security information. These new entanglements provide many opportunities for private personal data to be shifted from government hands to the corporate sector, increasing the risk of identity theft or other harm. The Department of Homeland Security is busy developing electronic mechanisms to protect privacy, but Mr. Rosenfield’s situation shows that disclosure can be as simple as handing over a piece of paper to a security guard.
As reported on Democracy Now, Mr. Rosenfield was acting on assignment for an investigation by Pro Publica and Frontline into an April 2010 toxic chemical release at BP’s massive refinery in Texas City. On April 6, just two weeks before the explosion on the deepwater horizon oil rig, 538,000 pounds of chemicals began spewing into the atmosphere. When Rosenfield started taking photos of the local town and roadway signs to give a portrait of the town itself, he was followed by BP security guards and Texas City police officers. Police Officer T. Krietemeyer pulled in after Mr. Rosenfield stopped at a gas station and demanded to review his photographs. (You can view the video from the dashboard camera here). Says Rosenfield,
They had reports that I was taking photographs. And I said, ‘Yes, I’m a photojournalist.’ And they said, ‘We need to see your pictures.’ I said, well, you know, ‘Without a warrant, I don’t feel like I need to show you the pictures.’ And he said, ‘Well, you can show ‘em to us now or we can to this later with Homeland Security.’
In blatant disregard for Mr. Rosenfield’s privacy rights, the Officer Krietemeyer gathered Rosenfield’s personal information, including his social security number, and then turned around and handed that information directly to BP’s security guard, Mr. Stief. Mr. Rosenfield objected to no avail. Next, Cpl. Tom Robison, a liaison with the Joint Terrorism Task Force, arrived and continued questioning Mr. Rosenfield in an aggressive and antagonistic fashion. Cpl. Robison explained his view that “a refinery is a terrorist target and any time people take pictures of it, they have to investigate.” After concluding that the photos did not represent a terrorist threat, Mr. Rosenfield was free to leave the scene.
In a statement from BP, the company claims that Officer Krietemeyer provided BP with information needed to make a report to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center (NRC), consistent with regulatory requirements under 33 C.F.R Part 101.305. Any duty to report incidents to the Coast Guard is limited to suspicious activity. 33 CFR Part 101.305 requires an owner of a maritime facility to report activities that “may result in a transportation security incident.” Nothing that Mr. Rosenfield did was suspicious under any reasonable standard. He did not enter facility property or possess photos of any BP facilities. Of course, the purpose of this reporting mechanism is to notify law enforcement. Here, a member of the JTTF (to which the Coast Guard belongs) already possessed the information, so there was no need to pass it on to BP so it could notify law enforcement! The fact that the NRC now has an incident report with Mr. Rosenfield’s personal information on file should not comfort anyone.
This is not the only time that the FBI JTTF liaison was involved in detaining a refinery photographer. In July 2008, a photographer for the Galveston County Daily News was also detained by Cpl. Robison. Officer Robison, it was alleged, tried to cajole Kevin Cox into showing him photos of Marathon refinery employees cleaning up a minor oil spill during a 45-minute detention. Both Texas City Police and the FBI assert a legal right to review photos of refineries, although where this power comes from is not clear.