With attention on the president's admission Monday that he allowed domestic spying without first obtaining a court order, a report on other incidents involving surveillance of U.S. citizens has quietly disappeared from mainstream news.
A Dec. 14 NBC News story revealed that during a 10-month span, the U.S. Department of Defense monitored 44 antiwar demonstrations, meetings and Internet discussions, labeling the activities "suspicious incidents." The information comes from a 400-page document leaked to NBC.
According to the document, the DoD largely had its eye on protests at military recruitment facilities. But there was also monitoring of an e-mail discussion among a Washington D.C. antiwar group titled "Great Places to Protest" and, as the NBC story points out, a Florida Quaker group protesting military recruiting at high schools also drew attention.
In San Diego, the DoD monitored planning for a May 11 demonstration just outside the U.S. Naval Station-a perfectly legal get-together, said San Diego attorney Jeremy Warren, who was at the protest. The demonstration, held as part of a three-day event called "Put the War on Trial," was deemed a credible threat by the DoD. The document gives no specifics about where that information came from.
A Washington D.C. law firm, the Partnership for Civil Justice, has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get additional information on government surveillance of "anti-war, anti-recruiting and other protest or political speech and assembly activities." The request was filed on behalf of the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) and the National Lawyers Guild. ANSWER's L.A. arm held a March 19 protest at Hollywood and Vine, one of the 44 events deemed a threat, though the document classifies whatever information the DoD obtained about the event as "not credible."
Ian Thompson, spokesperson for L.A. ANSWER, said his group acquired the necessary permits for the event. He said a bus of San Diegans participated in the rally. What disturbed him most, Thompson said, is that although the event was considered a non-credible threat, the database says the investigation into the demonstration remains ongoing.
"If it's considered not a threat and they're gathering information on it, they should know better... and the investigation should be closed.
"We don't want the government to intimidate people into not exercising their free-speech rights," Thompson added.
Partnership for Civil Justice's Mara Verheyden-Hilliard is the attorney helming the information request. The 11-point letter sent to the DoD on Dec. 15 asks for all information that went into compiling the database acquired by NBC in addition to all information pertaining to intelligence gathering on anti-war activity since 2001. The letter also asks for information on the DoD's record-keeping procedures.
"When they collect information on people and groups, it's often dispersed in different ways, and it's important to know where it's kept, where it's dispersed and who has access to it," she said.
The Partnership for Civil Justice has successfully exposed other instances of domestic spying such as the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force monitoring people planning to protest the 2000 presidential inauguration. Verheyden-Hilliard pointed out that the Pentagon has said it has the authority to monitor "threats" to military bases. The March 19 Hollywood and Vine demonstration "is clearly unrelated to any military installation," she said. "It completely belies the statement [the Pentagon] put out about reasons for their operations."
Verheyden-Hilliard said it's possible information gathering extends beyond monitoring rallies and demonstrations and could encompass other anti-Bush administration activity. For that reason, she worded the information request in broad terms.
"If they're identifying anyone who's engaged in some type of [political] speech or activity, including journalists or bloggers or people who are making anti-war commentary, it's... encompassed in [the FOIA]."
Verheyden-Hilliard said she's asked the DoD for an "expedited review" of her request, noting that the monitoring of persons engaged in legitimate political protest violates those individuals' First Amendment rights; furthermore, labeling such activity a "threat" could violate a person's right to due process.
Paul McMasters, ombudsman for the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and an expert on Freedom of Information requests, said the Partnership for Civil Justice is facing an uphill battle in trying to get information.
"Access to any government records continues to be more difficult today than at any time since the Freedom of Information Act was passed four decades ago," McMasters said. "Even congressional oversight committees and special government commissions have trouble getting necessary information from the White House.
"The bottom line," he added, "is that it is increasingly difficult for individual Americans or interest groups to hold government officials to account. That becomes a particularly urgent matter when government officials are engaging in surveillance of American citizens that may well silence dissent and violate civil liberties."
Verheyden-Hilliard said that if her request is denied, she's willing to take it to federal court.
"The Nixon administration was caught [spying on anti-war protestors] 30 years ago," she said. "The results of that were exposure and some level of public humiliation.... Everyone would talk about it and decry it, and there would be some sense that this wouldn't happen again.
"But it does happen again," she said.
Lt. Col. Tracy O'Grady, a spokesperson for the DoD, said there are instances when anti-war activities, such as those taking place near a military installation, are noted as "dots" in a data-collection system called "Threat and Local Observation Notice," or TALON. Such activities are brought to the DoD's attention by "concerned citizens, DoD personnel, ... gate guards" and other law enforcement and intelligence gathering organizations.
"If a "dot' is not validated as threatening, it must be removed from the TALON system," she said. "If the "dot' is validated, the information is moved to law enforcement entities."O'Grady said the use of the information is restricted and must relate to threats directed against military installations or personnel. As for the document obtained by NBC, O'Grady said DoD officials have ordered a review of information-gathering and reporting procedures to ensure they comply with U.S. law; additionally, the TALON database will be reviewed to "identify any other information that is improperly in the database," she said.