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Newly disclosed documents show U.S. Defense Department tracked anti-Iraq war activities

NY Times | November 22, 2006
Eric Lichtblau and Mark Mazzetti

An anti-terrorist database used by the Defense Department in an effort to prevent attacks on military installations included intelligence tips about antiwar planning meetings held at churches, libraries, college campuses and other locations, newly disclosed documents show.

One tip in the database in February 2005, for instance, noted that "a church service for peace" would be held in the New York City area the next month. Another entry noted that antiwar protesters would be holding "nonviolence training" sessions at unidentified churches in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The Defense Department said it tightened its procedures this year to ensure that only material related to actual terrorist threats - and not peaceable First Amendment activity - was included in the database.

The head of the office that runs the database, known as Talon, said Monday that material on antiwar protests should not have been collected in the first place. "I don't want it, we shouldn't have had it, not interested in it," said Daniel Baur, acting director of the counterintelligence field-activity unit, which runs the Talon program at the Defense Department. "I don't want to deal with it."

He said that those operating the database had misinterpreted their mandate and that what was intended as an anti- terrorist database became, in some respects, a catch-all for leads on possible disruptions and threats against military installations in the United States, including protests against the military presence in Iraq.

Once the problem was discovered, Baur said, "we fixed it," and more than 180 entries in the database related to war protests were deleted from the system last year. Out of 13,000 entries in the database, many of them uncorroborated leads on possible threats, several thousand others were also purged because he said they had "no continuing relevance."

Amid controversy over the database, leads from so-called neighborhood watch programs and other tips about possible threats are down significantly this year, Baur said. He added that he was concerned that the scrutiny had created "a huge chilling effect" that could lead the military to miss legitimate threats.

Baur was responding to the latest batch of documents produced by the military under a Freedom of Information Act request brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. The union planned to release the documents publicly Tuesday, and its officials said they would push for Democrats, newly empowered in Congress, to hold hearings about the Talon database.

Ben Wizner, a lawyer for the union in New York, said the documents suggested that the military's efforts to glean intelligence on protesters went beyond what was previously known. If intelligence officials "are going to be doing investigations or monitoring in a place where people gather to worship or to study, they should have a pretty clear indication that a crime has occurred," Wizner added.

The leader of one antiwar group mentioned often in the latest military documents provided to the union said he was skeptical that the military had ended its collection of material on war protests. "I don't believe it," said Michael McPhearson, a former army captain who is now the executive director of Veterans for Peace, a group in St. Louis, Missouri.

McPhearson said he found the references to his group in the Talon database unsurprising and he said the group continued to use public settings and the Internet to plan its protests. "We don't have anything to hide," he said. "We're not doing anything illegal."

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