U.S. Spying on Students Bared

Court-ordered defense department docs show wider net of Don’t Ask protest surveillance

Documents released last month by the Department of Defense reveal that a domestic surveillance program of college organizations opposed to the presence of military recruiters on campus was more extensive than first revealed.

The 13-page report indicates that the DoD collected information on the activities of student groups at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, the New York University Law School, William Paterson University in New Jersey, Southern Connecticut State University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The documents were made public through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a group that counsels American gay and lesbian military personnel affected by the Pentagon’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

In December, NBC News revealed that the DoD conducted surveillance of several campus groups that held protests against military recruiters visiting their schools and were opposed to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Iraq War. These student organizations came under the observation of the military’s Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) program intended to monitor terrorist threats to the U.S. military. The protests were labeled “potentially violent” and “credible threats” for terrorism by DoD observers.

In particular, the LGBT student group at New York University Law School, OUTLaw, was targeted because Pentagon officials believed “the term Outlaws is a backhanded way of saying it is alright to commit possible violence and serve as vigilantes…”

After SLDN’s initial FOIA request, a recalcitrant DoD submitted documents in April that indicated three schools–NYU Law School, William Patterson, and the UC Santa Cruz had been snared in the surveillance program.

An SLDN appeal, which was only successful because it was backed up by a federal judge’s order, dislodged the current batch of TALON reports.

Those documents reveal that surveillance was ongoing at SUNY and Southern Connecticut State University as well.

“Federal government agencies have no business peeping through the keyholes of Americans who choose to exercise their First Amendment rights,” said SLDN’s executive director C. Dixon Osburn in a statement. “It is patently absurd that this administration has linked sexual orientation with terrorism.”

There also seemed to be an attempt on the part of the DoD to exaggerate the threat these protests posed to recruiters.

“The fact that the protest is in a different location from the recruiters does not mean much. Protestor tactics have included using mass text paging by cellular telephone to inform others of the location of the recruiters,” the TALON reports noted.

The TALON filings show that the DoD was tipped off about the location and extent of student protests. Contrary to earlier reports that these communications were “intercepted”, the TALON documents indicate that e-mails distributed by the student groups were forwarded to Pentagon investigators by an anonymous individual or individuals.

“The e-mails referred to in the documents were forwarded to DoD by a ‘source’”, said Commander Greg Hicks, a Pentagon spokesman. “DoD does not monitor, nor collect e-mails from college students. An e-mail not meant for DoD was never intercepted.”

At least one TALON entry seems to be a third-party account of a protest that occurred at Southern Connecticut State University. A narrative of the incident appears to have been written by someone who was present but did not take part in the protest. This has led some to surmise that an undercover agent monitored the event.

Hicks denied that there was an undercover investigator at the protest, adding that DoD regulations prevent undercover surveillance, and that policy regulations governing the information TALON gathers ensure that only information on possible terrorist threats from foreign sources is now collected.

Similar Pentagon investigations of anti-war protestors and peace activists during the Vietnam War led to Congressional hearings and limits on the type of information the DoD could collect about U.S. citizens.

However, TALON is part of the U.S. government’s widening effort to investigate domestic terrorism instigated by foreign sources.

In a February letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the DoD acknowledged that it had inappropriately gathered information on the student protestors.

Other Pentagon agencies subject to the FOIA request claimed they had no information similar to what appeared in TALON. The National Security Agency would neither confirm nor deny it monitored student groups.

SLDN spokeswoman Rebecca Sawyer said her organization is still not satisfied it has received everything the Pentagon knows about the surveillance programs.

“We do not believe the Pentagon has been fully forthcoming, and are considering additional avenues to determine if there has been more surveillance than currently revealed,” she said.