WASHINGTON – Pentagon officials said Wednesday that they have 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 antiwar meetings or protests, some aimed at military recruiting.
Although defense officials defended the Pentagon’s interest in gathering information about potential threats to military installations 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.”
In its announcement of the review, the Pentagon stopped short of officially acknowledging fault but strongly implied that some information had been mishandled.
“There is nothing more important to the U.S. military than the trust and goodwill of the American people,” the statement said. “The Department of Defense values that trust and goodwill and consequently views with the greatest concern any potential violation of the strict DoD policy governing authorized counter-intelligence efforts and support to law enforcement.”
The program, known as Talon, 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 antiwar 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 Cambone, will focus on whether officials broke those rules, the Pentagon’s 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.