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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
May 4, 2007

Pentagon may end program that spied on gay groups

Washington, D.C.--A controversial program used by the Department of Defense to spy on gay groups has been recommended for shutdown after lawsuits exposed it, and new Pentagon officials say it doesn’t merit continuing.

“Better late than never,” said Steve Ralls, spokesperson for the “don’t ask don’t tell” watchdog group Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “Surprisingly, it has taken them this long.”

The Threat and Local Observation Notices program, or TALON, was established in 2002. It collected information, often unverified, about people and organizations the Pentagon thought were threats to the armed services and their resources.

In 2005 it was used to spy on campus groups protesting the military’s gay ban.

That surveillance was discovered in April 2006 when news reports revealed the program and SLDN sued the Defense Intelligence Agency, which oversees TALON.

SLDN’s successful suit was followed by others from the ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, alleging the program violates citizens’ First Amendment rights.

Through intercepted student e-mails and other surveillance methods, the DIA used TALON to infiltrate student groups, often misinterpreting the information they got.

New York University’s LGBT law student group was targeted because DIA thought the group’s name, OutLaw, meant it had no respect for law enforcement.

Other TALON reports interpreted student teach-ins and civil disobedience to mean that violence would be done against recruiters.

Less than two weeks after coming out of retirement and being sworn in as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Air Force Lt. General James R. Clapper Jr. told an informal gathering of reporters April 24 that he would recommend the program be ended.

Department of Defense spokesperson Maj. Patrick Ryder said Clapper “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 the Congress and the media.”

However, Ryder said, Clapper does not have the authority to end the program. That can only come from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has given no indication what he will do with the recommendation or when. In the mean time, the program continues.

“We must have mechanisms to document and assess potential threats to DOD resources,” said Ryder, “but we must lay to rest the distrust and concern about the department’s commitment to civil rights that have been sustained by the problems found in the TALON reporting system.”

Asked how different a new system would be, Ryder said he didn’t know. He noted that steps taken by Clapper’s predecessor, Dr. Stephen Cambone, removed the records TALON should not have had, and they would ensure that the program has operated according to law.

However the seven criteria the TALON reports must contain, according to he directive, still include the almost all-inclusive “Any other suspicious activity and incidents reasonably believed to be related to international terrorist activity directed against DOD personnel, property, and activities within the United States or abroad.”

Ralls is skeptical. He called the Bush administration’s record on protecting citizens’ privacy “abysmal.”

 

 

 

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