Pentagon Will Review Database on U.S. Citizens

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Pentagon Will Review Database on U.S. Citizens

Protests Among Acts Labeled "Suspicious"

Newspaper article

By: Walter Pincus

Date: December 15, 2005

Source: Pincus, Walter. "Pentagon Will Review Database on U.S. Citizens: Protests Among Acts Labeled "Suspicious." The Washington Post. December 15, 2005.

About the Author: Walter Pincus is the national security reporter for the Washington Post, a daily newspaper based in Washington, DC with a circulation of over five million copies weekly.


In December 2005, the television network NBC reported that it had obtained a secret 400 page database from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) listing what the military called "suspicious incidents" across the United States. The list, known as the Cornerstone database, was maintained by the Federal agency CIFA (Counterintelligence Field Activity). According to a 2003 report of the DoD to Congress, CIFA is charged with 'identification and tracking of terrorists and production of CI [counterintelligence] assessments and advisories and risk assessment in support of DoD force protection and critical infrastructure protection efforts."

One of CIFA's sources of information is the TALON program (Threat and Local Observation Notice). TALON was established by order of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in 2003, when the DoD ordered CIFA to produce and "maintain a domestic law enforcement database that includes information related to potential terrorist threats directed against the Department of Defense." CIFA used TALON information to create the Cornerstone database.

The contents of the database are controversial because among the 1,500 reports in it were almost four dozen describing nonviolent antiwar activities. For example, the database recorded that a small group of activists had met in a Quaker Meeting House (Quakers are a pacifist Christian sect) to plan protests against military recruiting in high schools in Florida. Such records appeared to show that the Pentagon was treating Constitutionally protected, nonviolent, political criticism as a possible source of terrorism.


Pentagon officials said yesterday they had ordered a review of a program aimed at countering terrorist attacks that had compiled information about U.S. citizens, after reports that the database included information on peace protesters and others whose activities posed no threat and should not have been kept on file.

The move followed an NBC News report Tuesday disclosing that a sample of about 1,500 "suspicious incidents" listed in the database included four dozen anti-war meetings or protests, some aimed at military recruiting.

Although officials defended the Pentagon's interest in gathering information about possible threats to military bases and troops, one senior official acknowledged that a preliminary review of the database indicated that it had not been correctly maintained.

"On the surface, it looks like things in the database that were determined not to be viable threats were never deleted but should have been," the official said. "You can also make the argument that these things should never have been put in the database in the first place until they were confirmed as threats."

The program, known as Talon, compiles unconfirmed reports of suspected threats to defense facilities. It is part of a broader effort by the Pentagon to gather counter-terrorism intelligence within the United States, which has prompted concern from civil liberties activists and members of Congress in recent weeks.

To some, the Pentagon's current efforts recall the Vietnam War era, when defense officials spied on anti-war groups and peace activists. Congressional hearings in the 1970s subsequently led to strict limits on the kinds of information that the military can collect about activities and people inside the United States.

The review of the program, ordered by Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen A. Cambone, will focus on whether officials broke those rules, a Pentagon statement said. The regulations require that any information that is "not validated as threatening must be removed from the TALON system in less than ninety days," it said.

The Pentagon stopped short of officially acknowledging fault but strongly implied some information had been mis-handled. "There is nothing more important to the U.S. military than the trust and goodwill of the American people," said the statement. 'The Department of Defense … views with the greatest concern any potential violation of the strict DoD policy governing authorized counter-intelligence efforts."

The Talon database—and several affiliated programs—has been described by officials as a sort of neighborhood watch for the military, an important tool in trying to detect and prevent terrorist attacks against the military.

Under the programs, civilians and military personnel at defense installations are encouraged to file reports if they believe they have come across people or information that could be part of a terrorist plot or threat, either at home or abroad. The Talon reports are fed into a database managed by the Counterintelligence Field Activity, or CIFA, a three-year-old Pentagon agency whose budget and size are classified.

The Talon reports—the number is classified, officials said—can consist of "raw information" that "may or may not be related to an actual threat, and its very nature may be fragmented and incomplete," according to a 2003 memo signed by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

Cambone's review came one day after a sample of the CIFA database, containing reports of 1,519 "suspicious incidents" between July 2004 and May 2005, was disclosed first by NBC News, and by William M. Arkin, a former military intelligence officer and author, on his blog Early Warning.

Arkin said he obtained the information, which included a list of entries in the CIFA database, from a military source. The database document included references to incidents in several categories that were deemed suspicious.

Dozens of them involved anti-war and anti-recruiting protests by civilians dating to 2004. A Feb. 5, 2005, Talon report described as a "threat" the planned protest against recruiting at New York University by Army Judge Advocate General personnel. Another entry, concerning Feb. 14, 2005, involved a demonstration planned outside the gates of the base at Fort Collins, Colo.

One refers to a July 3, 2004, "surveillance" report of "suspicious activity by U.S. persons … affiliated with radical Moslems" in Big Bend National Park in Texas.

Another category of reports involved missing identification cards and uniforms of military personnel, which pose threats because they can be used to gain illegal access to Pentagon facilities. Other reports dealt with "test of security," such as when someone drives up to the gate of a military facility or takes photographs or shoots videotape.

There have been no congressional hearings on the Defense Department's growing involvement in domestic intelligence collection, but Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, began raising questions about CIFA's programs after recent articles in The Washington Post.

"CIFA needs to be a tightly controlled program," Harman said yesterday, after she and intelligence committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) met privately with Cambone on Capitol Hill. She would not discuss the meeting.


Release of the TALON/Cornerstone database was particularly important because it followed a series of revelations that the U.S. government had been spying on U.S. citizens.

Only a month before the database was released, the Washington Post" had reported the DoD was "considering expanding the power" of CIFA to collect information about U.S. citizens. Also, documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2005 had shown that activities of the type that CIFA was using to gather information had recently come under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) using counterterrorism resources. For example, the FBI had begun a classified investigation into the Thomas Merton Center in Philadelphia, a pacifist Christian group. In May 2006, the ACLU released further government documents showing that the FBI had been using counter-terrorism resources to investigate School of the Americas Watch, a church-based organization that protests the training of foreign military personnel on U.S. soil by the U.S. military. "From Quakers to monks to priests," said an ACLU representative, "the FBI is targeting innocent Americans for counterterrorism surveillance."

Links between the FBI and CIFA increase critics' concern over the possible misuse of information gathered by CIFA. In its 2003 report to Congress, the DoD stated that "CIFA is now furnishing a counterintelligence support team to assist the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)-led Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force." In 2005, the Washington Post" reported that "the Pentagon has pushed legislation on Capitol Hill that would create an intelligence exception to the Privacy Act, allowing the FBI and others to share information gathered about U.S. citizens with the Pentagon, CIA and other intelligence agencies."

Civil rights advocates, libertarians, and some conservatives fear that government is beginning to use its powers to repress political ideas with which it disagrees. Their fears are at least partly grounded in history: A series of hearings held by Senator Frank Church in the 1970s revealed details of the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) run by the FBI from 1956 through 1971. COINTELPRO not only spied upon but actively disrupted (through planted evidence, agents provocateurs, and other illegal tactics) noncriminal activities of the Communist and Socialist Workers parties, Black Power groups, the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam War groups, and others. The Church Committee's final report characterized COINTELPRO as "a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association" (1976).

In March 2006, Acting Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Roger W. Rogalski wrote a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) stating that "The recent [Pentagon] review of the TALON reporting system identified a small number of reports … that dealt with domestic anti-military protests or demonstrations potentially impacting DoD facilities or personnel. While the information was of value to military commanders, it should not have been retained in the Cornerstone database." The report also stated that "all reports concerning protest activities have been purged" from the database.

However, one DoD briefing document obtained by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), not related to the TALON program, noted that "we [DoD intelligence officers] have noted increased communication and encouragement between protest groups using the Internet," though no "reoccurring instigators at protests [or] vehicle descriptions.' Such statements imply that the DoD is monitoring political internet activity, tracking protestors' identities, and taking the license numbers of cars at protests—all actions which violate the DoD's own guidelines, dating to 1982, for collecting information about U.S. citizens.

Defenders of increased surveillance argue that it is needed to prevent terrorist acts. They argue that surveillance of U.S. citizens is accidental or incidental to such surveillance.



Churchill, Ward and Jim Vander Wall. The Cointelpro Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Domestic Dissent. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1990.


Gellman, Barton and Dafna Linzer. "Bush's Disclosures on Domestic Spying Raise Legal Questions." The Washington Post. December 18, 2005.

Pincus, Walter. "Pentagon Expanding Its Domestic Surveillance Activity." The Washington Post. November 27, 2005.

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Newsweek. "The Other Big Brother: The Pentagon has its own domestic spying program." January 30, 2006. < newsweek/> (accessed May 26, 2006).