|Jennifer Loewenstein Archive
Is the Pentagon spying on Americans?
Secret database obtained by NBC News tracks ‘suspicious’ domestic groups
Lisa Myers, Douglas Pasternak, Rich Gardella and the NBC Investigative Unit
December 13, 2005
WASHINGTON - A year ago, at a Quaker Meeting House in Lake Worth, Fla., a small group of activists met to plan a protest of military recruiting at local high schools. What they didn't know was that their meeting had come to the attention of the U.S. military.
A secret 400-page Defense Department document obtained by NBC News lists the Lake Worth meeting as a "threat" and one of more than 1,500 "suspicious incidents" across the country over a recent 10-month period.
"This peaceful, educationally oriented group being a threat is incredible," says Evy Grachow, a member of the Florida group called The Truth Project.
"This is incredible," adds group member Rich Hersh. "It's an example of paranoia by our government," he says. "We're not doing anything illegal."
The Defense Department document is the first inside look at how the U.S. military has stepped up intelligence collection inside this country since 9/11, which now includes the monitoring of peaceful anti-war and counter-military recruitment groups.
"I think Americans should be concerned that the military, in fact, has reached too far," says NBC News military analyst Bill Arkin.
The Department of Defense declined repeated requests by NBC News for an interview. A spokesman said that all domestic intelligence information is "properly collected" and involves "protection of Defense Department installations, interests and personnel." The military has always had a legitimate "force protection" mission inside the U.S. to protect its personnel and facilities from potential violence. But the Pentagon now collects domestic intelligence that goes beyond legitimate concerns about terrorism or protecting U.S. military installations, say critics.
Four dozen anti-war meetings
The DOD database obtained by NBC News includes nearly four dozen anti-war meetings or protests, including some that have taken place far from any military installation, post or recruitment center. One "incident" included in the database is a large anti-war protest at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles last March that included effigies of President Bush and anti-war protest banners. Another incident mentions a planned protest against military recruiters last December in Boston and a planned protest last April at McDonald’s National Salute to America’s Heroes — a military air and sea show in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The Fort Lauderdale protest was deemed not to be a credible threat and a column in the database concludes: "US group exercising constitutional rights." Two-hundred and forty-three other incidents in the database were discounted because they had no connection to the Department of Defense — yet they all remained in the database.
The DOD has strict guidelines (.PDF link), adopted in December 1982, that limit the extent to which they can collect and retain information on U.S. citizens.
Still, the DOD database includes at least 20 references to U.S. citizens or U.S. persons. Other documents obtained by NBC News show that the Defense Department is clearly increasing its domestic monitoring activities. One DOD briefing document stamped "secret" concludes: "[W]e have noted increased communication and encouragement between protest groups using the [I]nternet," but no "significant connection" between incidents, such as "reoccurring instigators at protests" or "vehicle descriptions."
The increased monitoring disturbs some military observers.
"It means that they’re actually collecting information about who’s at those protests, the descriptions of vehicles at those protests," says Arkin. "On the domestic level, this is unprecedented," he says. "I think it's the beginning of enormous problems and enormous mischief for the military."
Some former senior DOD intelligence officials share his concern. George Lotz, a 30-year career DOD official and former U.S. Air Force colonel, held the post of Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Oversight from 1998 until his retirement last May. Lotz, who recently began a consulting business to help train and educate intelligence agencies and improve oversight of their collection process, believes some of the information the DOD has been collecting is not justified.
Make sure they are not just going crazy
"Somebody needs to be monitoring to make sure they are just not going crazy and reporting things on U.S. citizens without any kind of reasoning or rationale," says Lotz. "I demonstrated with Martin Luther King in 1963 in Washington," he says, "and I certainly didn’t want anybody putting my name on any kind of list. I wasn’t any threat to the government," he adds.
The military’s penchant for collecting domestic intelligence is disturbing — but familiar — to Christopher Pyle, a former Army intelligence officer.
"Some people never learn," he says. During the Vietnam War, Pyle blew the whistle on the Defense Department for monitoring and infiltrating anti-war and civil rights protests when he published an article in the Washington Monthly in January 1970.
The public was outraged and a lengthy congressional investigation followed that revealed that the military had conducted investigations on at least 100,000 American citizens. Pyle got more than 100 military agents to testify that they had been ordered to spy on U.S. citizens — many of them anti-war protestors and civil rights advocates. In the wake of the investigations, Pyle helped Congress write a law placing new limits on military spying inside the U.S.
But Pyle, now a professor at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts, says some of the information in the database suggests the military may be dangerously close to repeating its past mistakes.
"The documents tell me that military intelligence is back conducting investigations and maintaining records on civilian political activity. The military made promises that it would not do this again," he says.
Too much data?
Some Pentagon observers worry that in the effort to thwart the next 9/11, the U.S. military is now collecting too much data, both undermining its own analysis efforts by forcing analysts to wade through a mountain of rubble in order to obtain potentially key nuggets of intelligence and entangling U.S. citizens in the U.S. military’s expanding and quiet collection of domestic threat data.
Two years ago, the Defense Department directed a little known agency, Counterintelligence Field Activity, or CIFA, to establish and "maintain a domestic law enforcement database that includes information related to potential terrorist threats directed against the Department of Defense." Then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz also established a new reporting mechanism known as a TALON or Threat and Local Observation Notice report. TALONs now provide "non-validated domestic threat information" from military units throughout the United States that are collected and retained in a CIFA database. The reports include details on potential surveillance of military bases, stolen vehicles, bomb threats and planned anti-war protests. In the program’s first year, the agency received more than 5,000 TALON reports. The database obtained by NBC News is generated by Counterintelligence Field Activity.
CIFA is becoming the superpower of data mining within the U.S. national security community. Its "operational and analytical records" include "reports of investigation, collection reports, statements of individuals, affidavits, correspondence, and other documentation pertaining to investigative or analytical efforts" by the DOD and other U.S. government agencies to identify terrorist and other threats. Since March 2004, CIFA has awarded at least $33 million in contracts to corporate giants Lockheed Martin, Unisys Corporation, Computer Sciences Corporation and Northrop Grumman to develop databases that comb through classified and unclassified government data, commercial information and Internet chatter to help sniff out terrorists, saboteurs and spies.
One of the CIFA-funded database projects being developed by Northrop Grumman and dubbed "Person Search," is designed "to provide comprehensive information about people of interest." It will include the ability to search government as well as commercial databases. Another project, "The Insider Threat Initiative," intends to "develop systems able to detect, mitigate and investigate insider threats," as well as the ability to "identify and document normal and abnormal activities and 'behaviors,’" according to the Computer Sciences Corp. contract. A separate CIFA contract with a small Virginia-based defense contractor seeks to develop methods "to track and monitor activities of suspect individuals."
"The military has the right to protect its installations, and to protect its recruiting services," says Pyle. "It does not have the right to maintain extensive files on lawful protests of their recruiting activities, or of their base activities," he argues.
"The harm in my view is that these people ought to be allowed to demonstrate, to hold a banner, to peacefully assemble whether they agree or disagree with the government’s policies," the former DOD intelligence official says.
Bert Tussing, director of Homeland Defense and Security Issues at the U.S. Army War College and a former Marine, says "there is very little that could justify the collection of domestic intelligence by the Unites States military. If we start going down this slippery slope it would be too easy to go back to a place we never want to see again," he says.
Some of the targets of the U.S. military’s recent collection efforts say they have already gone too far.
"It's absolute paranoia — at the highest levels of our government," says Hersh of The Truth Project.
"I mean, we're based here at the Quaker Meeting House," says Truth Project member Marie Zwicker, "and several of us are Quakers."
The Defense Department refused to comment on how it obtained information on the Lake Worth meeting or why it considers a dozen or so anti-war activists a "threat."