By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Less than two weeks after being sworn in as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr. is moving to end the controversial Talon electronic data program, which collected and circulated unverified reports about people and organizations that allegedly threaten Defense Department facilities.
Clapper, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, "has assessed the results of the Talon program and does not believe they merit continuing the program as currently constituted, particularly in light of its image in Congress and the media," according to a statement released in his name yesterday by a Pentagon spokesman.
Talon, launched in 2003 with an eye toward Sept. 11, 2001, came under public scrutiny in December 2005 with the disclosure that it had collected data on anti-military protesters and peaceful demonstrators. More recently, the American Civil Liberties Union released an internal Pentagon report showing that, as of 18 months ago, Talon had about 13,000 entries, of which 2,821 involved reports on U.S. citizens.
The Talon system was part of the Defense Department's growing effort under then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Clapper's predecessor, Stephen A. Cambone, to gather intelligence within the United States, which officials at that time argued was imperative as they worked to detect and prevent potentially catastrophic terrorist assaults.
The Clapper statement says that the Defense Department must continue "to document and assess potential threats to Defense Department resources" but that any new system, unlike Talon, "must lay to rest the distrust and concern about the department's commitment to civil rights."
The development was first reported by Reuters yesterday.
In answer to questions before his confirmation hearing, Clapper, who has worked for 43 years within military intelligence, said: "The history of the intelligence community is replete with instances of abuse of civil liberties -- well intended, but abuse nonetheless." He said it is "important that the proper balance be struck between the counterintelligence mission, on one hand, and the protection of civil liberties, on the other."
Talon -- which stands for Threat and Local Observation Notices -- is operated under the direction of the Counterintelligence Field Activity, which was established in September 2002 by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz. CIFA was originally charged with coordinating policy and overseeing the domestic counterintelligence activities of Pentagon agencies and the armed forces.
The agency's size and budget are classified, but congressional sources have said that CIFA had spent more than $1 billion through last October. One counterintelligence official at that time estimated that CIFA had 400 full-time employees and 800 to 900 contractors working for it.
Last August, CIFA Director David A. Burtt II and his top deputy, Joseph Hefferon, resigned in the wake of a scandal involving CIFA contracts that went to MZM Inc., a company run by Mitchell J. Wade. Wade pleaded guilty in February 2006 to conspiring to bribe then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif).
In written responses to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing in December, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pledged to look "in greater detail" at CIFA's activities.