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2006-06-29

Pentagon Spying on Gay, Antiwar Groups More Widespread than Previously Acknowledged

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Servicemembers Legal Defense Network released documents earlier this week showing that the Pentagon conducted surveillance on a more extensive level than first reported late last year. We speak with the executive director of SLDN and a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who recently filed a federal lawsuit to force the agency to turn over additional records. [includes rush transcript]

Earlier this week, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network released documents showing that the Pentagon conducted surveillance on a more extensive level than first reported late last year. De-classified documents show that the agency spied on "Don’t Ask, Do’t Tell" protests and anti-war protests at several universities around the country. They also show that the government monitored student e-mails and planted undercover agents at least one protest.

But the Pentagon has not released all information on its surveillance activities. The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a federal lawsuit to force the agency to turn over additional records. The lawsuit charges that the Pentagon is refusing to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests seeking records on the ACLU, the American Friends Service Committee, Greenpeace, Veterans for Peace and United for Peace and Justice, as well as 26 local groups and activists.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Dixon Osburne now joins from us Washington, D.C. He is the Executive Director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Can you talk about what you learned about the Pentagon spying on your organization?

DIXON OSBURNE: Well, the Pentagon has not released any documents suggesting that it has spied on Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. The documents that they’ve released have shown that they have spied on student groups, including student groups at U.C. Santa Clara, the state universities in New York, NYU Law School, and what those documents show is that they were investigating these groups for potential terrorist activity. They even called a gay kiss-in at U.C. Santa Cruz that was trying to protest "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," it was, quote, "a credible threat of terrorism."

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you learn exactly what was happening?

DIXON OSBURNE: The story was first reported on NBC News late last year, and it gave us a window into what was going on at the Department of Defense. So at SLDN, we filed FOIAs, Freedom of Information Act requests, with various agencies within the Department of Defense, C.I.A., F.B.I., N.S.A. and other agencies, asking them to release any documents that indicated that they were spying on student groups or lesbian/gay/bisexual student groups around the country.

It was in response to those Freedom of Information Act requests that the Pentagon started very slowly dribbling out a few responses, some last year and now another stack just this past week, confirming that they indeed were investigating various student groups, that they were collecting emails, that they, at least in one case, sent an undercover agent to spy on their protest and determine what was going on at those protests, all under this rubric of trying to thwart terrorism here in the United States.

Instead it’s just an indication of how sweeping this administration’s domestic spying program is. They aren’t focused on terrorism. They’re focused on peaceful demonstrations and people exercising their rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. And so, we are still pressing the Pentagon to release even more documents.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, this is a stunning revelation, because clearly now we’re talking about a much more expanded surveillance of, basically, dissent in the United States under the cover — or peaceful dissent under the cover of continuing to fight the war on terrorism.

DIXON OSBURNE: You’re absolutely right. This administration has said that they are conducting domestic surveillance only to try to identify potential links between people living here and terrorists abroad. And the reality is that that’s not the case, that, in fact, the domestic surveillance program is extremely grand and extremely sweeping. And it is very chilling here in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dixon Osburne, co-founder and Executive Director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. We’re also joined by Ben Wizner, ACLU staff attorney. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network got information under Freedom of Information Act. You’re not having as much luck.

BEN WIZNER: Not yet. I also want to pay my respects to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund. They’ve been out on front on this issue. They put in their FOIA requests early, and they have been able to uncover through that FOIA request some very important information that we’re talking about today. Following up on their requests, ACLU affiliates around country filed a series of FOIA requests on behalf of a whole litany of antiwar and anti-military recruitment groups, some of whom had appeared in the Pentagon database that was released to NBC News.

And we also want to know what kinds of policies and procedures the Pentagon is relying on. How can they possibly think that it’s appropriate for the United States military to be maintaining a database of peaceful protest activities? We’ve not yet been able to get any documents. We filed a lawsuit to enforce that Freedom of Information Act request. We expect that within the next month or two we will begin to receive documents in response to our lawsuit.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the responses to your request, have they been saying that they have no material that meets your request or that they’re precluded, in one way or another, from releasing it?

BEN WIZNER: No, we have not yet gotten the substantive request from the military saying that they don’t have responsive material. Essentially they ignore us until a federal judge requires them to respond to us. But if we were in a functioning democracy, we wouldn’t need FOIA requests to get to the bottom of what’s going on here. The minute that report was leaked to NBC News, the minute NBC News reported that grannies and Quakers and people protesting "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" at law schools were in a Pentagon secret database, there would have been hearings the next week, and Don Rumsfeld and Stephen Cambone would have been dragged up to Capitol Hill, and there would have been a full airing of what was going on. And that really is what’s needed here. I mean, we will find out more information through this FOIA, but Congress’s silence here is really remarkable.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say if we were really functioning in a democracy, what exactly do you mean?

BEN WIZNER: What I mean is that we have not had any meaningful congressional oversight of any of these surveillance activities over the last five or six years. You know, I do know, Amy, I’ve been here on the program talking about what we’ve uncovered through our FOIAs against the F.B.I., F.B.I. surveillance of peaceful protesters. What’s going on with the N.S.A. really is a constitutional crisis, and Congress has yet to play a meaningful role. The reason why the FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act, has taken on such great importance over the last four or five years is that there is no meaningful oversight whatsoever going on on Capitol Hill. And so, our only choice is to get this information, bring it before the public and hope that there’s some pressure on the administration to change its policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican, really went after the Bush administration around warrantless spying on Americans, said he was going to subpoena the telecom executives and then totally backed off. He’s a Republican. What about the Democrats?

BEN WIZNER: Well, you know, it takes the Republicans, in order for administration officials to be subpoenaed, in order for documents to be subpoenaed. So whatever the Democratic Party might do if it were in power — and I’m not confident to answer that question — it doesn’t have the power to do anything right now.

AMY GOODMAN: It certainly could make noise.

BEN WIZNER: It could make noise, and I think that it has made some noise. But I’m not here to defend the Democrats. I mean, the point is this is not a partisan question. A president saying that neither the courts nor the Congress has any role in the defense of the country is a constitutional crisis, not a Republican or Democrat issue.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Russ Feingold, among the Democrats, has repeatedly spoken out and obviously opposed the PATRIOT Act, in terms of insisting that this kind of continued government surveillance was unacceptable through our Constitution. But very few other voices, even among the Democrats, have spoken out.

BEN WIZNER: No, there aren’t, and, you know, I’m glad you mentioned the PATRIOT Act, and we rightly celebrate Russ Feingold for being the lone courageous vote against that act that was written in the dead of night and not read by anybody. But what’s so striking about the PATRIOT Act is that the administration, which really demonized Congress for not passing it more quickly, which threatened Congress that the American people wouldn’t be safe unless it got passed right away, they then went ahead and ignored it.

I mean, what is the PATRIOT Act? The PATRIOT Act is an amendment of the FISA law. It makes it easier for the government to get FISA warrants. And while the administration is arguing out of one side of its mouth that it needs the FISA law amended, at the same time it’s completely and secretly ignoring it for years and saying that FISA is unconstitutional now, once its crimes are reported in the public. And so it’s very important that we’re having these discussions on this program. It’s very important that people understand the full scope of the power that the administration is claiming.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think people can do? If the parties aren’t doing it, the elected leaders.

BEN WIZNER: You know, this is a moment of serious accountability for the democracy. And people need to demand it, and not just demand it by replacing people in Congress, but making clear to the people who are in Congress right now that if they don’t rein in the abuses of power in this administration, they’ll be gone.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we asked the Pentagon to join us on this program, and we weren’t able to get anyone on. The Pentagon did say they shouldn’t have added peace groups to the Talon database.

BEN WIZNER: Well, I’m not sure they said it that clearly. I think, you know, the Pentagon has asked for audits of these databases. But I’ve looked at the documents that have been released under the FOIA so far, and I haven’t seen a document where the Pentagon says straight out that it’s improper to have antiwar protest activity in a database. I do agree that in contrast to, say, the F.B.I., there has been a willingness on the part of the Pentagon take a look at this. And I can assure you that there are people in the military who are very, very uncomfortable with the military being seen as another arm of this administration’s political agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question to Dixon Osburne of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. When you learn you’re being spied on, you how does it affect your work and your group, the servicemembers who work with you?

DIXON OSBURNE: It affects us in at least two ways. First, the majority of Americans oppose "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." And they see that the federal government is now spying on them and keeping personal records on them if they are trying to protest "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," and that that change in government policy has a very chilling effect on their freedom of speech. Secondly, at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, we are also a legal services organization, and to the extent that the government is spying on us, it really threatens attorney-client confidentiality. So we’re very concerned for our clients if the government is engaged in as broad a domestic spying program as is suggested by these documents.

AMY GOODMAN: And the kind of cases you represent?

DIXON OSBURNE: We assist servicemembers who were hurt by "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." These are individuals that, if it is known that they are gay, lesbian or bisexual, they will lose their career in the armed forces. So if the government is keeping a database on the individuals who might be our clients — and we don’t have evidence of that right now — it would be enormously chilling and would be a violation of additional fundamental constitutional rights to an attorney.

AMY GOODMAN: Dixon Osburne, I want to thank you for being with us, co-founder and Executive Director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, joining from us a very wet Washington, D.C. And Ben Wizner, thanks for joining us here in New York with the American Civil Liberties Union.

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