By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005
Day after day, reports of suspicious activity filed from military bases and other defense installations throughout the United States flow into the Counterintelligence Field Activity, or CIFA, a three-year-old Pentagon agency whose size and budget remain classified.
The Talon reports, as they are called, are based on information from civilians and military personnel who stumble across people or information they think might be part of a terrorist plot or threat against defense facilities at home or abroad.
The documents can consist of "raw information reported by concerned citizens and military members regarding suspicious incidents," said a 2003 memo signed by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz. The reports "may or may not be related to an actual threat, and its very nature may be fragmented and incomplete," the memo said.
The Talon system is part of the Defense Department's growing effort to gather intelligence within the United States, which officials argue is imperative as they work to detect and prevent potentially catastrophic terrorist assaults. The Talon reports -- how many are generated is classified, a Pentagon spokesman said -- are collected and analyzed by CIFA, an agency at the forefront of the Pentagon's counterterrorism program.
The Pentagon's emphasis on domestic intelligence has raised concerns among some civil liberties advocates and intelligence officials. For some of them, the Talon system carries echoes of the 1960s, when the Pentagon collected information about anti-Vietnam War groups and peace activists that led to congressional hearings in the 1970s and limits on the types of information the Defense Department could gather and retain about U.S. citizens.
"I am particularly apprehensive about the expansion of our military's role in domestic intelligence gathering," said Washington lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the Sept. 11 commission at that panel's final news conference last week, noting that Congress has yet to pay attention to the Talon program. The Pentagon's collection of data, he said, was a "cause for concern," partly because little is known about it publicly.
"Programs such as CIFA, Eagle Eyes and Talon -- names unfamiliar to most Americans -- must receive robust scrutiny by Congress and the media," Ben-Veniste said.
CIFA, according to a Pentagon background paper provided to The Washington Post in response to inquiries, has established standards for Talon reports and handling that "meet intelligence oversight requirements." The statement said "U.S. person information" -- reports concerning people in the United States -- "is collected and retained only as authorized" by presidential executive order.
Spokesmen for the FBI, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte and the National Counterterrorism Center all said their principals would not comment on CIFA's Talon activities.
Talon, which stands for "threat and local observation notice," captures raw information about "anomalies, observations that are suspicious . . . and immediate indicators of potential threats to DoD [Defense Department] personnel and or resources," according to an attachment to Wolfowitz's memo.
Talon reports grew out of a program called Eagle Eyes, an anti-terrorist program established by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations that "enlists the eyes and ears of Air Force members and citizens in the war on terror," according to the program's Web site. A Pentagon spokesman recently described Eagle Eyes as a "neighborhood watch" program for military bases. The Air Force inspector general newsletter in 2003 said program informants include "Air Force family members, contractors, off-base merchants, community organizations and neighborhoods."
In the period after Sept. 11, 2001, an intelligence and security panel working under sponsorship of the Joint Staff adopted Talon to be the Defense Department reporting system "to assemble, process and analyze suspicious activity reports to identify possible terrorist pre-attack activities," according to the background paper.
CIFA, which was created in February 2002, was given responsibility for analyzing the Talon reports. CIFA was originally asked to coordinate policy and oversee the counterintelligence activities of the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Defense agencies such as the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. CIFA's initial role also included the establishment of the common standards for training and collection of data.
Since that time, under its director, David A. Burtt II, CIFA has rapidly expanded its mandate inside the United States as the Pentagon's domestic intelligence activities have grown since Sept. 11.
It is unclear how many Talon reports are filed each year. But just one of the military services involved in the program, the Air Force, generated 1,200 during the 14 months that ended in September 2003, according to the inspector general's newsletter.
Among the types of information worth recording, according to a Talon report guide that accompanied the Wolfowitz memo, are threats or incidents that "may indicate a potential for a threat . . . whether the threat posed is deliberately targeted or collateral." Another trigger for reporting would be attempts by individuals to monitor U.S. facilities, including the taking of pictures, annotating maps or drawings of facilities, use of binoculars "or other vision-enhancing devices" or attempts to obtain "security-related or military specific information."
Other categories for reports were attempts to acquire badges, passes or theft of materials that could be used to manufacture false identification cards or thefts of military uniforms.
A former senior CIA official with wide counterintelligence experience, who is familiar with CIFA's growth, said the agency's mandate is "ambiguous, but the Defense Department is using its assets in its broadest terms." He added that efforts such as Talon "could be a well-intentioned effort and it could develop important information." But, he said that in his view, "the Pentagon has chosen to err on the side of over-collection" of information.
His concern, he said, was who does the intelligence "go to, and what do they do with it."