March 22, 2007
Chris Pifer is a policy analyst at the Washington office of the American Friends Service Committee.
An e-mail went out to people in Springfield, Mass., on February 28, 2005, asking them to join in a protest against the second anniversary of the war in Iraq. “All are welcome,” the e-mail said. To the Department of Defense, this was suspicious—so they added it to a secret military database.
The organization that sent that e-mail was the American Friends Service Committee, a 90-year-old pacifist Quaker organization, a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. This was the first of two events the Department of Defense felt were worth watching.
News of this has been around for a while, but as the Democratic-led Congress focuses its attention on open government, the experiences of the Service Committee highlight the excesses of an unaccountable government and the importance of tools like the Freedom of Information Act to preserve that accountability.
It was as early as 1921, just three years after the Service Committee was founded, that the FBI took notice and created a file on the organization. Through 1978, that particular file generated over 3,498 pages of surveillance. Throughout that surveillance, agents and other FBI staff consistently and repeatedly concluded, to quote a February 1951 FBI memorandum: “There is no information on hand indicating that the American Friends Service Committee… is engaged in any activities of unlawful or subversive nature.”
Yet the surveillance went on. It continues today.
In 2005, peaceful protests planned by AFSC in response to the second anniversary of the war in Iraq were identified in a secret Department of Defense database as “potential terrorist activities,” according to internal documents received through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. This database, which is most frequently referred to in the media as the TALON database, also identified a 79 year-old Quaker grandmother attending an anti-war meeting at a Quaker meeting house in Florida as “potential terrorist activity.”
TALON is known more precisely within the Defense Department as the Joint Protection Enterprise Network. Entries in the database can be created at almost any level of government and, once entered, they are accessible to over 28 different federal, state and local agencies, including 3,598 individuals throughout various branches of government. Managed by the Pentagon’s Counterintelligence Field Activity program, we owe much of what we know about this database to strong investigative reporting by NBC and The Washington Post , with some gaps filled in by multiple FOIA requests with the Americaan Civil Liberties Union.
We are left to wonder: How many times were the TALON reports on AFSC accessed? How many times were the activities of another government agency towards AFSC or our employees influenced by these TALON reports? What is to prevent future First Amendment-protected protests from being tracked in this database? We may never know.
We do, however, know without question of several other instances where the government has conducted surveillance of AFSC.
In 2002 an ACLU Freedom Files lawsuit and FOIA request revealed the Denver police had falsely identified AFSC as a “criminal extremist organization.” It was conducting extensive surveillance of the organization and recording it in a police database. The ACLU staff prosecuting this lawsuit noted that two items about this database stood out: 1) the simple act of planning and organizing a protest was sufficient to create an entry in this database and initiate an investigation. 2) The content of this database was shared very widely across jurisdictions, and with the federal government. There is no way to trace whose private information was transferred from this database to other branches of government and if these branches still hold that information.
In 2004, during the Republican National Convention, the AFSC office in Cambridge was under surveillance by multiple black SUVs with tinted windows and, periodically, a helicopter. While the people in the SUVs said they were with the Department of Homeland Security, AFSC was unable to figure out why they were suddenly interested in our work.
In 2002, the AFSC office in Chicago was infiltrated by local police during preparations for an anti-globalization protest while the office was negotiating with police about protest logistics. An internal audit of the police department found “boxes” of surveillance materials created during this period, although, to date, a Freedom of Information Act request has produced only a handful of documents.
The biggest concern today is that we see history not repeat itself. Do we really want to go back to the McCarthy era, or COINTELPRO when nonviolent activists, such as Martin Luther King Jr. were labeled as “radicals,” and were watched and infiltrated?
What can we do about this? What are the lessons we are to draw from these experiences? We expect our elected officials to uphold the rule of law, and we ask Congress to assert its role to create checks and balances on other branches of the government in order to protect our civil liberties. Specifically, Congress should:
Investigate the Department of Defense use of TALON reports and the Joint Protection Enterprise Network database and evaluate the impact they have had upon constitutionally protected dissent.
Revisit the US PATRIOT Act. Start with the common-sense bipartisan proposals from the Security and Freedom Enhancement (SAFE) Act Act of 2005, which would address roving wiretap provisions, sneak and peek powers, and national security letter provisions which the FBI Inspector General has just found have been repeated abused.
Evaluate the First Amendment implications of the intelligence gathering activities of local police and the Joint Terrorism Task Force to ensure they are not harming constitutionally protected dissent.
Rather than the government spying on the people of this country, the people of this country should hold our government accountable. Spying and dismantling the constitution makes us neither safe nor more secure.