A civil rights group sued the Defense Department on Wednesday in an effort to force the Pentagon to turn over information it’s collected on peace groups and antiwar activists under a controversial program designed to track terrorists.
The lawsuit, filed in Philadelphia by the American Civil Liberties Union, asks the Defense Department to produce records it’s collected under its Threat and Local Observation Notice program. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz started TALON in 2003 to track groups and individuals with possible links to terrorists and others who might pose a threat to Defense Department installations and personnel.
ACLU officials say the program has been wrongfully extended to monitor peace groups who were doing nothing more than expressing their views.
“The U.S. military should not be in the business of maintaining secret databases about lawful First Amendment activities,” ACLU attorney Ben Wizner said. “It’s an abuse of power and an abuse of trust for the military to play any role in monitoring critics of administration policies.”
Lt. Col. Brian Maka, a Pentagon spokesman, said it would be inappropriate to comment on ongoing litigation.
TALON was based on an earlier Air Force project launched in 2002 known as “Eagle Eyes,” under which military personnel were encouraged to report suspicious activity.
The ACLU said it sued after the Pentagon refused to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information it had collected on the ACLU, the American Friends Service Committee, Greenpeace, Veterans for Peace, United for Peace and Justice, and 26 other groups and activists.
ACLU affiliates in Florida, Georgia, Rhode Island, Maine, Pennsylvania and Washington state have joined in the lawsuit.
The groups argue that organizations and people monitored by the Pentagon have a right to know what information has been collected about them. The lawsuit seeks to determine whether that information has been shared or will be shared with other federal agencies.
Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said the ACLU lawsuit probably would be an uphill battle.
“The courts tend to be deferential to government agencies on issues of national security,” he said.
But there are exceptions, and sometimes there’s a middle ground under which government agencies will release sensitive information, Aftergood said.
“Sometimes a lawsuit is necessary to get a serious response from the government,” he said. “But only rarely is a judge going to force an agency to disclose records it doesn’t want to disclose.”
News stories about the secret program prompted the Defense Department last December to order a review of TALON to see whether it complied with Pentagon regulations and U.S. law. The review also was supposed to determine whether some records and information had been stored improperly in the program’s database.
Maka said he couldn’t comment on whether the review had been completed because of the lawsuit.
Aftergood said the biggest problems with TALON were a lack of oversight and improper collection of information on U.S. citizens.
“Certainly, the Pentagon needs to be alert against threats against its facilities,” he said. “But they also need to comply with the law and respect the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.”
Drew Brown, Knight Ridder Newspapers