EDITORIAL The Department of Defense has released the first installment of records related to Pentagon spying on antiwar groups, and while the documents are pretty limited, they suggest that there are no rules against monitoring peaceful political protests.
The records were made public in response to a Freedom of Information request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Guardian after evidence emerged that military intelligence agents were monitoring protests at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley.
The records consist largely of documents and memos, dating back to 1982, that outline the rules and procedures for gathering intelligence on activities that the Pentagon might consider threatening to the US military or its personnel (the documents can be viewed in full at www.sfbg.com). The most relevant material relates to the 2003 Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) program, which was created to report and analyze what the Pentagon calls "nonvalidated possible terrorist-related threat information." A Dec. 19, 2005 memo from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense states that TALON "is the place where the DoD initially stores 'dots' of information which if validated, might later be connected to avert an attack."
Many of the documents discuss media coverage of the TALON program in 2005 and suggest that some policies around the retention of information might need review.
However, nowhere in the documents is there any clear statement that nonviolent protests — protected by the First Amendment — should be kept out of the database or that any limits should be set on the types of activities that are considered worthy of TALON reporting.
In other words, based on what we've seen so far, the Pentagon considers it perfectly appropriate to spy on student protesters and to put that information in a terrorist-threat database.
This ought to be an issue in the fall congressional elections. The Bush administration's level of "intelligence" collection and scrutiny of private information about Americans who have not broken any laws and do not constitute a threat to anyone is astonishing. The fact that the administration can't even tell its spies to leave peaceful protesters alone is another sign of the alarming erosion not only of personal privacy but of First Amendment rights. SFBG