The secret spies

Pub date January 17, 2007
WriterTim Redmond


To view the TALON documents in PDF format (524 pages) click here.

To view the full ACLU report click here.

The Pentagon has released to the Guardian and the American Civil Liberties Union 534 pages of documents reutf8g to domestic surveillance — and we don’t know much of anything new about the notorious Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) program.

The vast majority of the documents, released under the Freedom of Information Act, are entirely blacked out or heavily redacted. It’s clear there has been a lot of high-level discussion about policies and procedures related to military spying on civilians — but the government isn’t coming clean about more than a sliver of it.

One thing the records do show is that the Pentagon at one point had between 12,000 and 13,000 files in its TALON database — and 2,821 contained information about "U.S. persons." At least 186 of the reports in the files involved antiwar or antimilitary protests.

The Guardian and the ACLU went to federal court in 2006 to demand access to Pentagon records related to domestic surveillance after Santa Cruz Students Against the War and the Berkeley Anti-War Coalition compiled evidence to suggest that they had been the subject of TALON spying.

TALON was originally designed to monitor threats against military bases, but its mission expanded to encompass, for example, protests against military recruiters on the Santa Cruz campus. Pentagon officials admitted in December 2005 that the Santa Cruz student group was spied on under the TALON program.

In fact, documents we received earlier show that data about the student group were shared with the Department of Homeland Security and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which works with local police agencies (see "No End to Pentagon Spying," 7/5/06).

Initial documents received last year showed that, as of early 2006, there were no clear rules barring the military from conducting surveillance on peaceful protesters. The new documents indicate that in January and February of that year top Pentagon officials ordered a review of procedures and set some restrictions on retaining files on people who were not considered imminent threats.

One document states that information on protesters "has not been provided by recruited sources of information" — in other words, the military wasn’t sending spies to watch protests — but concludes that "this statement is not intended to state that TALON reporting could not result from recruited sources or tasked personnel."

That only confirms what we had learned already: that there is no formal ban on armed forces personnel spying on protesters or planting sources inside peaceful groups or peaceful protests.

However, the operation seems to be winding down a bit. By June 16, 2006, one of the few uncensored documents shows, TALON reports had dropped by 80 percent.

It wasn’t easy to get even these highly censored records. The Guardian-ACLU request was stymied at first, and only after Federal Judge William Alsup on May 25, 2006, ordered an expedited review did the US Army, Navy, and Air Force begin to grudgingly release a few tidbits of information.

It’s astounding how heavily redacted the documents are. Page after page after page shows that high-level policy discussions around TALON and domestic surveillance were taking place at the Department of Defense in January and February 2006 — but military officials won’t reveal a bit about the nature of those talks or the policies that resulted.

"The amount of information that’s redacted is significant," ACLU police practices lawyer Mark Schlosberg noted. "We understand the need for certain information to be kept confidential, but discussion about policies involving domestic surveillance is something the public has a strong interest in." *