The Department of Defense admitted in a letter obtained by NBC News on Thursday that it had wrongly added peaceful demonstrators to a database of possible domestic terrorist threats. The letter followed an NBC report focusing on the Defense Department’s Threat and Local Observation Notice, or TALON, report.
Acting Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Roger W. Rogalski’s letter came in reply to a memo from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who had demanded answers about the process of identifying domestic protesters as suspicious and removing their names when they are wrongly listed.
“The recent review of the TALON Reporting System ... identified a small number of reports that did not meet the TALON reporting criteria. Those reports dealt with domestic anti-military protests or demonstrations potentially impacting DoD facilities or personnel,” Rogalski wrote on Wednesday.
“While the information was of value to military commanders, it should not have been retained in the Cornerstone database.”
Threats directed against Defense Department
In 2003, the Defense Department directed a little-known agency, Counterintelligence Field Activity (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 TALON at that time.
The original NBC News report, from December, focused on a secret 400-page Defense Department document listing more than 1,500 “suspicious incidents” across the country over a 10-month period. One such incident was a small group of activists meeting in a Quaker Meeting House in Lake Worth, Fla., to plan a protest against military recruiting at local high schools.
In his Wednesday letter, Rogalski said such anomalies in the TALON database had been removed.
“They did not pertain to potential foreign terrorist activity and thus should never have been entered into the Cornerstone database. These reports have since been removed from the Cornerstone database and refresher training on intelligence oversight and database management is being given,” Rogalski wrote.
Rogalski said only 43 names were improperly added to the database, and those were from protest-related reports such as the Quaker meeting in Florida.
“All reports concerning protest activities have been purged,” the letter said.
TALON reports provide “non-validated domestic threat information” from military units throughout the United States that are collected and retained in the Cornerstone CIFA database. The reports include details on potential surveillance of military bases, stolen vehicles, bomb threats and planned antiwar protests. In the program’s first year, the agency received more than 5,000 TALON reports.
Nearly four dozen antiwar meetings listed
The Defense Department document provides an inside look at how the U.S. military has stepped up intelligence gathering since 9/11. The database includes nearly four dozen antiwar meetings or protests, including some that have taken place far from any military installation, post or recruitment center, according to NBC News’ Lisa Myers, who first wrote about the story in December.
Among those listed were a large antiwar protest in Los Angeles in March 2004 that included effigies of President Bush and antiwar protest banners, a planned protest against military recruiters in December 2004 in Boston, and a planned protest in April 2004 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: “U.S. 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 Department of Defense has strict guidelines (.PDF link), adopted in December 1982, that limit the extent to which it can collect and retain information on U.S. citizens.
Still, the 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 briefing document stamped “secret” concludes: “[W]e have noted increased communication and encouragement between protest groups using the Internet,” but no “significant connection” between incidents, such as “reoccurring instigators at protests” or “vehicle descriptions.”
Earlier domestic intelligence gathering
The military’s penchant for collecting domestic intelligence is a trend, Christopher Pyle, a former Army intelligence officer, told NBC News when the report was first broadcast.
During the Vietnam War, Pyle revealed the Defense Department monitored and infiltrated antiwar and civil rights protests in an article he published in the Washington Monthly in January 1970.
The public was outraged and a lengthy congressional investigation followed that revealed the military had conducted probes 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 antiwar protesters 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 said 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 said.
NBC News' Lisa Myers and the NBC Investigative Unit contributed to this report.