By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
WASHINGTON – According to news reports that began surfacing during the week of Dec. 12, pro-LGBT student groups and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network are among the organizations that have been snared in a secret government database designed to detect potential terrorist activity.
According to a Dec. 20 PlanetOUT report, “Last week Lisa Myers of NBC News reported Pentagon investigators had records citing a February protest at New York University, with the law school’s LGBT advocacy group OUTlaw classified as ‘possibly violent’ by the Pentagon. The news report also uncovered surveillance of military-ban protests at the State University of New York at Albany and William Patterson College in New Jersey during April.”
The report continues, “A ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ protest at the University of California at Santa Cruz that featured a gay kiss-in was labeled by the Pentagon as a ‘credible threat’ of terrorism.”
The Pentagon database, known as the Threat and Local Observation Notice, or TALON, reporting system, is similar to Operation TIPS, a Department of Justice system that was intended to enlist civilian workers nationwide to report possible terrorist activity, according to a June, 2003 report by Wired News. Operation TIPS was shelved after protests by civil liberties and privacy groups, according to the Wired News report.
According to a description of the TALON system provided by Lt. Col. Tracy O’Grady-Walsh, USAF, a defense press officer at the Pentagon, “DoD entities enter unfiltered information into the Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) reporting system gathered by concerned citizens, DoD personnel charged with responsibilities for the security of DoD installations i.e., – gate guards, or other DoD personnel reporting suspicious activities, as well as law enforcement, intelligence, security and counterintelligence organizations, to provide analysts data on which to estimate possible threats. It is, in effect, the place where DoD initially stores ‘dots,’ which if validated, might later be connected before an attack occurs.
“Under existing procedures, a ‘dot’ of information that is not validated as threatening must be removed from the TALON system. If the ‘dot’ is validated, the information is moved to law enforcement entities.”
The Department of Defense did not respond to questions regarding the length of time a “dot” of information is kept in the database, criteria for turning information over to local law enforcement, or whether or not systems are in place to protect individuals and groups from false allegations by the deadline for this issue. Nor did the DoD answer questions about how or why the targeted LGBT human rights groups were added to the TALON database.
Steve Ralls, spokesperson for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said, “My understanding is that the information that’s been released so far on those groups is only a very small portion of the overall data that the Pentagon has obtained on various groups.” SLDN filed a Freedom of Information Act Request to learn just what information the Pentagon has collected about the organization on Jan. 5.
“It seems unbelievable, and if the Pentagon had not itself confirmed the information one would think that it was the plotline of a George Orwell story,” Ralls said.
Rebecca Fisher, co-chair of New York University’s student group OUTLaw, one of the student groups in the Pentagon database, said, “We had no idea we were being spied on and we don’t know why anyone would have considered us ‘potentially violent.’ Our activities are mainly bringing informational speakers to NYU to talk about LBGT-related legal issues, organizing social events for LBGT law students, and peacefully protesting the Solomon Amendment and the military’s ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy. Since we also don’t know how the Pentagon went about investigating us, I’m wondering how far they went in invading our personal privacy to make their determination. Did they read our email? Monitor our meetings?” Fisher added that her group would decide on a response to the reported surveillance when classes reconvene in January.
Brad Luna, director of media relations for the Human Rights Campaign, said that there was no indication to date that HRC had been targeted for surveillance.
“It seems like most of the groups have been groups that have been on college campuses leading DADT protests,” Luna said. “We sort of think that it would be ironic to spy on groups that were doing nothing but trying to bolster national security and ensure that every patriotic American can serve our nation openly and honestly.”
Though her organization has not been mentioned in news reports about the surveillance program, Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, expressed concern.
“We’ve seen the administration, which is hostile to all LGBT people, running out of control with all kinds of surveillance,” Keisling said.
News of the Pentagon program broke during the same time that other news services were reporting that George W. Bush has authorized secret wiretapping of international calls made by both foreign nationals and United States citizens within the United States.
“I don’t have any specific reason to think that we’ve been targeted, but they’ve shown such disregard for civil liberties the law and LGBT people that we all have very big reasons to be concerned,” Keisling said, and added that her organization was considering filing a FOIA request to find out if they had been targeted.