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Pentagon shuts down spying database

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August 22, 2007

The Pentagon said on Tuesday it would close a controversial database tracking suspicious activity around U.S. military bases that critics complained had been used to spy on peaceful antiwar activists.

Officials decided the TALON program would end on September 17 not in response to public criticism but because the amount and quality of information being gathered had declined, the Pentagon said.

“The analytical value of it was pretty slim,” said Army Col. Gary Keck, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters. “The TALON database was a perfectly legal system, nobody ever said it wasn’t, but it just was not meeting our needs any more.”

Although the Pentagon insisted the move was not a response to criticism, a memo by the department’s top intelligence official obtained by Reuters in April said the program should not be continued “particularly in light of its image in the Congress and the media.”

Military and defense personnel still will report suspicious activities around military bases, the Pentagon said. But that information will go to an FBI database until the Pentagon proposes a longer-term solution.

The TALON program, which was set up in 2003, has been used to store reports about potential threats to Pentagon and U.S. military facilities and personnel.

PEACEFUL PROTESTORS INCLUDED

The Pentagon said in April last year that a review had found the database included reports on peaceful protests and anti-war demonstrations that should have been deleted.

At that time, the Pentagon said it had introduced safeguards to prevent such information from ending up in the database but it stood by the system, saying it was a valuable tool for detecting potential terrorist threats.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which had sharply criticized the Pentagon for maintaining the database, welcomed the decision to abandon TALON but said questions remained about Pentagon surveillance activity in the United States.

“The TALON program could be just the tip of the iceberg,” said Caroline Fredericks, director of the group’s Washington legislative office.

“It remains critical that Congress investigate how the abuse of the TALON database happened in the first place and conduct proper oversight of other intrusive surveillance by the executive branch,” she said in a statement.

The Pentagon is legally restricted in the types of information it can gather about activities and individuals inside the United States.

In his memo from April this year, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper said he had assessed the results of TALON during the past year and did not believe they justified continuing the program in its current form.

The Pentagon said on Tuesday that records would be kept of data previously collected in the TALON system.

TALON has been widely understood to stand for Threat and Local Observation Notice and the Pentagon’s own internal watchdog used that name in a report on the program this year. But a Pentagon spokesman said on Tuesday TALON was originally just a name, not an acronym.

(Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts)