Volume 76, Number 2 | May 31 - June 6 2006

Talking Point

Defense Department snooping at N.Y.U. is offensive

By Ed Gold

The Bush administration, obsessively intent on insulating the country against potential terror-related activities, continues to spend billions and create bigger databases. One such venture which penetrated our neighborhood has turned out to be inspired by sheer stupidity, leaving egg all over the faces of some of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s underlings.

The giant database, called Talon, first came to light last December in a report on NBC News that noted that the Pentagon’s secret database, attempting to track down enemies of the Republic, had included information about a Quaker meeting in Florida that had protested military recruitment at a local high school.

Word began to spread that Talon’s protective arm was reaching out to include “threats” posed by members of campus groups or other groups who marched against the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” recruitment policy.

A gay rights advocacy group, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, received under the Freedom of Information Act a Talon database listing of 43 events that could endanger our national security by opposing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” recruitment policy. The threat list included student protests at New York University, C.C.N.Y., Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Albany and the University of Wisconsin, among others.

As early as January, N.Y.U. officials got wind of the Talon “threat” listing and began asking political leaders, including Senator Hillary Clinton and Congressmember Jerry Nadler, for help.

Lynne Brown, N.Y.U. senior vice president, who deals with the political scene, wanted to know why Department of Defense surveillance was being “directed at citizens participating in peaceful free speech-protected activities.”

The Defense database to protect America contained protests at N.Y.U. in early 2005, including one threat that “may involve OUTLaws” and another that warned of “a possible violent demonstration at N.Y.U.”

Apparently, at the Pentagon the reference to “OUTLaws” must have raised blood pressures and indicated revolutionary action. It turns out that OUTLaws is the name of a respected group of N.Y.U. law students who have come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

In April, Congressmember Nadler asked Rumsfeld for an explanation as to why “nearly four dozen antiwar meetings or protests, including some that have taken place at American colleges and universities far from any military installation or recruitment center,” had been included in an antiterrorist database.

“I would like to know,” Nadler wrote Rumsfeld, “whether these media reports are correct. If they are, what types of information has D.O.D. collected on protesters participating in peaceful speech in New York City? Was there a particular threat to which the investigation was intended to respond? On what legal justification has D.O.D. based these investigations?”

Meanwhile, the allegedly dangerous OUTLaws organization expressed “outrage to discover their own government was spying on them,” adding that Defense actions “are consistent with and compound the homophobia that pervades government policies.”

Richard Revesz, N.Y.U. Law School dean, chimed in with a suggestion that D.O.D. action revealed “a remarkable misallocation of our nation’s resources.”

At the end of April, D.O.D. answered Nadler with a “hey, we didn’t mean any harm” response.

Rumsfeld left the dirty work of getting D.O.D. off the hook to a subordinate with the lengthy title of acting deputy undersecretary of defense for counterintelligence and security, Robert W. Rogalski.

Rogalski told Nadler that the Talon database — he called it a “reporting system” — had been created “to document and share unfiltered information about suspicious incidents possibly related to foreign terrorist threats to the D.O.D. for subsequent analysis.”

In a bit of doubletalk, he assured Nadler that “D.O.D. was not targeting U.S. persons in this activity, although some of the information reported to the Department relates to U.S. persons.” The college data in Talon had come from “outside sources,” he said, but he didn’t explain how campus protests found their way into a database dedicated to preserving the American way of life, including free speech and civil liberties.

Finally, D.O.D. came to the point, admitting the college material should not have been punched into the database, and adding that, “We have instituted a number of procedures to preclude a recurrence of these mistakes.”

Recent history indicates we should not hold our breath on that promise.

A good message to D.O.D. would be a large protest rally next time recruiters visit N.Y.U. in search of young straights to train for action in Iraq.

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