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ACLU Sues Pentagon to Uncover Surveillance of Local Peace Groups

Posted: June 14, 2006|Category: Free Speech Category: Privacy

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today joined a federal lawsuit filed in Philadelphia by the National ACLU to force the Department of Defense to turn over records it wrongly kept on peace groups throughout the country. Along with the National ACLU and five other state affiliates, the ACLU of Rhode Island is seeking to uncover any surveillance documents kept by the Pentagon on local peace groups, as well as on the RI ACLU itself.

The lawsuit, filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, charges the Defense Department with violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by refusing to turn over documents pertaining to its domestic spying program. The Affiliate filed a FOIA request on February 1, 2006 on behalf of the R.I. Community Coalition for Peace (RICCP) and three other peace groups after evidence surfaced that the Pentagon was secretly conducting illegal surveillance of protest activities, anti-war organizations and individuals who attended peace rallies in Rhode Island and elsewhere. No records have yet been received in response to the request, leading to today’s suit.

According to news reports, the Pentagon gathered and shared the surveillance data with other government agencies through its Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) database. The TALON program was initiated by former Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in 2003, purportedly to track groups and individuals with possible links to terrorism. However, earlier this year, the RI ACLU learned that the database included information about a peaceful protest that RICCP held in December 2004 in front of the National Guard recruiting station in downtown Providence. The database labeled the protest a “threat.” That revelation prompted the FOIA request to a variety of federal defense agencies.

In today’s lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the organizations and individuals monitored by the Pentagon have a right to know what information the military has collected about them. The ACLU also is seeking to uncover whether the TALON records have been shared with other agencies or otherwise disseminated. The suit seeks a court order requiring the defendants to process the FOIA requests expeditiously and to disclose the requested records in their entirety. The ACLU is representing in the lawsuit dozens of other organizations, including the national offices of the American Friends Service Committee, Veterans for Peace, and Greenpeace.

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today: “As the Bush Administration seeks to clamp down and chill dissent in this country, it is critical for the public to learn just how widespread the Pentagon’s illegal spying in Rhode Island has been. The sooner that government officials understand that monitoring First Amendment activity is none of its business, the safer we will be from true threats to our country.” Brown noted that the suit was filed at a time when the RI General Assembly is considering legislation that would give state and local police broad authority to engage in political spying of their own by obtaining telephone and Internet records of any state resident upon request, vastly increasing their ability to target individuals on the basis of their free speech activities.

Nicholas Schmader, a representative of the RICCP, added: “By ignoring expeditious compliance with the FOIA requests made by the ACLU on behalf of the Rhode Island Community Coalition for Peace, spy agencies once again mistakenly believe that they are above the law. This culture of impunity thrives under an administration that continues to arrogantly trample upon our basic civil liberties.”

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