At least 186 antiwar protests in the United States have been monitored by the Pentagon’s domestic surveillance program, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which also found that the Defense Department collected more than 2,800 reports involving Americans in a single anti-terrorism database.
The documents were obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request filed last February.
“It cannot be an accident or coincidence that nearly 200 antiwar protests ended up in a Pentagon threat database,” Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the ACLU, said in a statement. “This unchecked surveillance is part of a broad pattern of the Bush administration using ‘national security’ as an excuse to run roughshod over the privacy and free speech rights of Americans.”
The internal Defense Department documents show it is monitoring the activities of a wide swath of peace groups, including Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, Code Pink, the American Friends Service Committee, the War Resisters League, and the umbrella group United for Peace and Justice, which is spearheading what organizers hope will be a massive march on Washington this Saturday.
“This might have a chilling effect on some groups,” United for Peace and Justice‘s Leslie Cagan told OneWorld, “particularly among high-risk communities like immigrants who don’t have their papers yet and US citizens or people with green cards who are of Muslim or South Asian or Middle Eastern descent. They’ve already been targeted by the government and they might feel like, with this, it’s just too dangerous to come out and protest.”
“It seems pretty par for the course,” said Daniel Fearn of the group Veterans for Peace. The eight-year Marine Corps veteran is helping to organize an event in Washington Thursday ahead of the larger march January 27th.
“What do you expect from an administration that thinks torture is an accurate way to get accurate information?” he said. “It’s the same thought process that says ‘we’re going to get good information from torturing somebody’ that same flawed process leads to spying on peace activists.”
At Thursday’s event in Washington, Fearn said veterans will read sections of the Constitution they believe the Bush administration is violating as it prosecutes the war in Iraq.
Fearn said veterans will also speak out against unwarranted surveillance and torture and argue for the repeal of laws they believe violate the Constitution, such as the Military Commissions Act, which prescribes secret tribunals for terrorism suspects.
The event appears similar to those the Pentagon has kept tabs on, according to the internal documents obtained by the ACLU.
“Veterans for Peace erected an antiwar display the week of 18 April 2005 at a local university,” reads a report on a New Orleans protest from the Pentagon’s Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) database. “A local army recruiter mistook the event as a memorial to fallen service members and arrived to view the display.”
According to the TALON report, six individuals, who the report acknowledges may not have been associated with the Veterans for Peace group, shouted “war monger” and “baby killer” at the recruiter and a shoving match ensued.
“Veterans for Peace claim to be nonviolent,” the report concludes. “This incident demonstrates a propensity for violence, and the Veterans for Peace should be viewed as a possible threat to Army and DoD (Defense Department) personnel.”
For its part, Veterans for Peace describes itself as a non-profit educational and humanitarian organization committed to non-violence. “We draw on our personal experiences and perspectives gained as veterans to raise public awareness of the true costs and consequences of militarism and war and to seek peaceful, effective alternatives,” the group’s Web site reads.
In response to the documents’ release, Pentagon officials said the material on antiwar groups should not have been collected.
“I don’t want it, we shouldn’t have had it, not interested in it,” Daniel Baur, the acting director of the Defense Department’s counterintelligence field activity unit, told the New York Times. “I don’t want to deal with it.”
Baur told the Times his agency is no longer monitoring peace groups.
Experts on government spying caution not to take the Pentagon at its word, however. The ACLU notes the Defense Department documents reveal that other government agencies were also involved in the spying.
In one report, a Department of Homeland Security agent warned after a peaceful protest by the War Resisters League at a military recruiting station that the group may favor “civil disobedience and vandalism.” The report indicates that the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces in Atlanta and New York were briefed on planned protests.
“We have only the Pentagon’s word that the errors and misjudgments that led to widespread surveillance of US citizens have been corrected,” the ACLU said in a statement last week.
“Congress should not let this president off the hook for inappropriate surveillance by the Pentagon,” the group’s Caroline Fredrickson said. “Americans must once again be confident we can exercise our constitutionally protected right to protest without becoming the subject of a secret government file.”