FOI request to investigate government spying, ACLU says

CALIFORNIA –When California students protested military recruiters last year, they neverexpected to end up on a terrorist watch list. Now they want to knowwhy.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California fileda Freedom of Information Act request last week on behalf of two student groupsfrom California universities asking for all records and information kept on thegroups by several government agencies, including the Department ofDefense.

The request, filed by ACLU attorney Mark Schlosberg on Feb.1, is an expedited request. The government agencies must decide whether or notthey will process the request as expedited and notify Schlosberg with theirdecision within 10 days.

Department of Defense spokesman Cmdr. GregHicks said he did not know if the appropriate government office had received theFOI request. He said information requests are handled in accordance with U.S.government regulations.

“There are specific avenues for FOIArequests that come into the department,” Hicks said. “Each ishandled with its own merits and routinely in succession ofreceipt.”

The two student groups represented by the ACLU arethe University of California at Santa Cruz’s Students Against War and theStop the War Coalition at the University of California at Berkeley.

The FOI request is connected to rallies organized last April by thestudent groups that protested military recruitment on their campuses. Thestudents approached the ACLU after NBC News reported that in the wake of thoserallies, the events and participants showed up on a Department of Defensedatabase as potentially threatening.

The database, Threat and LocalObservation Notice, or TALON, was initiated in 2003 by former Deputy Secretaryof Defense Paul Wolfowitz to monitor groups and individuals with potential linksto terrorism.

“Our major complaint is that they wereparticipating in protected First Amendment activities,” said StellaRichardson, spokeswoman for the ACLU. “As students, they have a right todo so under the Constitution. That the Pentagon would have the events listed ona Pentagon database as potential threats isalarming.”

Richardson said the FOI request seeks to find outwhy the protests were listed on the database, what are the criteria forinclusion on the database and why the protests and protesters were perceived asa threat.

Schlosberg, the ACLU attorney, said that if the governmentis systematically monitoring college campuses for anti-war activities, thoserecords have “very distributing implications for privacy, academic freedomand political expression on university campuses.”

KotHordynski, 20, was quoted in an Associated Press article as saying, “Wewere expressing our patriotic rights … engaging in civil disobedience. We wantto show it’s not OK for the Department of Defense or the Pentagon to spyon its citizens.” Hordynski is a member of Students Against War and attended an April 5 rally against military recruiters.

Other government agencies listed on therequest include the Directorate for Freedom of Information, the departments ofthe Army, Navy and Air Force and the Defense IntelligenceAgency.

Cmdr. Terry Sutherland, spokesman for the DefenseIntelligence Agency, said he is “not aware of any kind of request”from the ACLU of Northern California.

Sutherland said the DIA has ahuge backlog of information requests that often take months or years to respondto, even if the request is expedited.

“We have to take thisdocument, redact everything and go through its review process,” he said.“It’s not as quick as people would like to think it is. It’svery manpower intensive.”

Richardson, the ACLU spokeswoman,said it is “never easy” for the ACLU to get information from thegovernment, and that information requests like this one often lead tolitigation.

–by Allison Retka, SPLC staff writer