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Pentagon to Probe Abuse of Security Database

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Pentagon is reviewing its process for compiling information on people in the US it feels are threats. The Pentagon began compiling the database after 9/11. This week NBC News reported that the database includes information about anti-war activists and people opposed to military recruiting. NPR's Vicky O'Hara has the story.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

The Defense Department enters all reports of suspicious activity into a database known as TALON, which stands for Threat and Local Observation Notice. Pentagon spokesman Brian Whitman says the data collection has a legitimate and important purpose.

Mr. BRIAN WHITMAN (Spokesperson, Pentagon): The department has a responsibility to protect its facilities, its installations, its people. And we do that, though, in accordance with the laws of this land and in accordance with well-established procedures.

O'HARA: Whitman says that if the information is deemed worth a follow-up, it's referred to domestic US law enforcement. Information that is deemed innocuous, he says, is supposed to be removed from the files after 90 days. But a Pentagon official who asked not to be identified says it doesn't always happen that way. In his words, `We held on to things that should have been expunged because they weren't a threat.' The Pentagon spokesman, Brian Whitman, wouldn't go quite that far in his public comments on the matter this morning.

Mr. WHITMAN: It appears as if there may have been things that were left in the database that shouldn't have been left there, but let's let the review determine that.

O'HARA: Pentagon spying on American citizens is a very sensitive issue because of abuses that occurred during the civil rights era and the Vietnam War. Kate Martin is director of the Center for National Security Studies, which monitors government surveillance of citizens. She says that restrictions on domestic spying against Americans have eroded since September 11th.

Ms. KATE MARTIN (Director, Center for National Security Studies): The problem has always been that in the name of security, the Defense Department and other intelligence agencies start monitoring what is dissent. And there's a long history of that.

O'HARA: During the 1960s and '70s, military agents collected information on civil rights and anti-war demonstrators who even the Pentagon now acknowledges were not legitimate targets. Congressional hearings on that issue in the 1970s resulted in the creation of a Department of Defense Intelligence Oversight Program. Brian Whitman would not confirm reports that the TALON database includes references to anti-war activists, but he said that the Defense Department is reviewing all aspects of the data collection program.

Mr. WHITMAN: We'll make a determination as to whether or not the policies and procedures are being carried out as appropriate and whether or not the data being stored as appropriate, and we're going to ensure that people are refreshed on those procedures, the laws and the collection and the storage.

O'HARA: That doesn't satisfy Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies.

Ms. MARTIN: We need congressional oversight and congressional hearings into the much broader question of what is the Defense Department doing in the business of domestic intelligence? Why do they need to be there, and what are they doing?

O'HARA: A Pentagon official says that Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, is sending a letter to Congress explaining the review of the TALON data collection program and what is being done to ensure that it does not violate the law or established procedures on the collection of domestic intelligence. Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, at the Pentagon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Vicky O'Hara
Victoria (Vicky) O'Hara is a diplomatic correspondent for NPR. Her coverage of the State Department and foreign policy issues can be heard on the award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition as well as on NPR's newscasts.

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