By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005
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 counterterrorism 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 90 days," it said.
The Pentagon stopped short of officially acknowledging fault but strongly implied some information had been mishandled. "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 washingtonpost.com 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.
Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.