Membership has its privileges

“A complete fabrication.” That’s how the Federal Bureau of Investigation is describing a story in the March issue of The Progressive magazine, entitled “The FBI Deputizes Business.” The story concerns a secretive organization called InfraGard, which has chapters all over the country, including one here in Sacramento.

InfraGard is a sort of information-sharing club made up of the FBI, other government agencies and a select group of private businesses.

“The primary focus of InfraGard is to share actionable intelligence information for investigative purposes,” according to the InfraGard Web site. As the name suggests, InfraGard is aimed at protecting “our nation’s critical infrastructures,” which, it seems, can include just about anything.

Critics say the program is about recruiting businesses (many of them Fortune 500 companies) to act as regular informants for the government.

But what got the most severe reaction were claims by one anonymous InfraGard member who told The Progressive that FBI agents talked to his group about what to do in the event that martial law is imposed. He said the G-men gave InfraGard members permission to use “deadly force” to protect their little corner of the infrastructure.

Oops. The FBI scrambled to post a quick response on the Web site, calling the whole shoot-to-kill part of the story a “complete fabrication.”

But out of 56 chapters and 20,000-plus members, somebody somewhere in one of these meetings probably did start playing a little “what if,” and then the group got carried away with this whole martial-law fantasy. It happens in SN&R staff meetings all the time.

Nasty things grow in dark places. This is why there’s nothing like secrecy to get people assuming the worst. And the Sacramento chapter of InfraGard is just a bit too shady for Your Favorite Set of Choppers to ignore.

The names of the Sacramento InfraGard board of directors, along with their e-mail addresses, are posted on the local InfraGard site. But there are no bios or other information. A little poking around reveals that many of these people are people you’d expect to be worried about critical infrastructure. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District has a couple of representatives on the board. The State Controller’s Office and the California Highway Patrol are also represented, among other government agencies.

The board president is Charlie Howell, a private security consultant. There’s Curtis Miller from Georgia Pacific, which makes toilet paper, building materials and related chemicals. Then there’s John Ulrich, a lobbyist for the Chemical Industry Council of California.

But the larger membership of InfraGard is kept secret, and so are their meetings.

Bites asked local InfraGard board member Selby Mohr, with SMUD, for a little more information. Mohr said he had only “all good things” to say about the organization. Or he said he would, if he could say anything at all. Which he said he couldn’t, and instead referred Bites’ questions to FBI Special Agent LuAnna Harmon.

“It’s sensitive information; we don’t give it to anyone” was how Harmon responded when Bites asked for an InfraGard membership list.

She allowed that there are “a couple of hundred” business members in Sacramento. Banks and other financial institutions were one example Harmon gave. What about, say, Bites’ local grocery store? “Not necessarily, but that’s a possibility,” Harmon explained.

All of them receive “threat advisories and intelligence bulletins,” Harmon said, sometimes on a daily basis.

Bites asked whether all the secrecy was because of a real security issue, or just a way to ward off nosy reporters. All Harmon would say was, “You’re not going to get that information.”

Maybe. But ask yourself this: Who in Sacramento deserves to get the timely heads up the next time there’s terrorist activity? And who doesn’t? Who’s being graced with this “actionable intelligence” and who is being left in the dark?

Whoever they are, it’s a safe bet that those in the security club will have a better shot at protecting their employees and their assets in the event that something evil goes down. The rest of us just don’t rate.