The Pentagon's New Spies
The military has built a vast domestic-intelligence network to fight terrorism -- but it's using it to track students, grandmothers and others protesting the war.
Last October, before the public learned that president Bush had secretly ordered the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without a court order, the Pentagon approached the Senate intelligence committee with an unprecedented request. Military officials wanted the authority to spy on U.S. citizens on American soil, without identifying themselves, in order to collect intelligence about about terrorist threats. The plan was so sweeping, according to congressional sources who reviewed it, that it would have permitted operatives from the Defense Intelligence Agency to spy on dissidents by posing as peace activists and infiltrating anti-war meetings.
Senators on both sides of the aisle refused to go along with the plan. "The Department of Defense should not be in the business of spying on law-abiding Americans -- period," said Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. In closed-door deliberations, the intelligence committee blocked the request.
In fact, however, the Pentagon has already assembled a nationwide domestic spying machine that goes far beyond the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance of telephone and e-mail traffic. Operating in secret, the Defense Department is systematically gathering and analyzing intelligence on American citizens at home -- and a new Pentagon agency called Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) is helping to coordinate the military's covert efforts with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
Those responsible for the military's new spy network insist that it is aimed at preventing another attack by Al Qaeda. "The premise is that there needs to be a nexus to foreign terrorism," says David Burtt, CIFA's director. "In the wake of 9/11, there was a lot of criticism about the ability to collect dots and connect dots."
So far, the military's efforts at domestic spying have caught few, if any, terrorists. But the Pentagon has tracked the activities of anti-war activists across the country who have staged peaceful demonstrations against military bases and defense contractors such as Halliburton. Traditionally restricted to action overseas, America's armed forces -- including the National Guard -- are now linked in a growing domestic spying apparatus which, thanks to technology, has far greater power than the Army units that conducted a massive operation to infiltrate, disrupt and destabilize Vietnam and civil rights protests during the 1960s and '70s. "We are deputizing the military to spy on law-abiding Americans in America," said Wyden. "This is a huge leap without even a congressional hearing."
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Intelligence gathered by the military runs into and out of the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Here, beneath the snow-covered summit of Pike's Peak, the Defense Department has set up its first command dedicated to homeland security in a gleaming new $90 million facility. Before Northcom was established in 2002, the facility was best known as the home of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the ultra-high-tech war room depicted in the movie WarGames, where sharp-eyed military personnel spent the Cold War watching for a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.
Nowadays, the place is more like a real-life version of the counterterrorism unit on 24. Judging from the bustle of activity at Northcom, anti-terrorism is good for business. The corridors are filled with dust from construction and the smell of paint, and a brand-new wing is nearly ready to open. Over the past four years, Northcom has doubled in size and now boasts a staff of 1,200 and an annual budget of $93 million.
At the center of the operation is a core group of 300 intelligence analysts and staff who inhabit Northcom and its state-of-the-art facility, called the Combined Intelligence Fusion Center. "Intelligence fusion" is a spy master's term of art that refers to melding together data from all points -- including intelligence agencies, the armed forces, law enforcement and other sources -- and analyzing all the seemingly disparate information for patterns. "The fusion and analysis that these kids do is different than anything I've seen in forty years," says Adm. Timothy Keating, the commander of Northcom.
The intelligence streaming into the center can be anything from highly polished analyses from the CIA and FBI to the military's own alerts and warnings. At the bottom are Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed by many government agencies, which are often little more than rumors based on unfounded information -- a financial officer who notes an odd money transfer or a military spouse who spots a suspect individual near a base. More official are Threat and Local Observation Notices (TALONs), part of a surveillance program started by the Pentagon in 2003. More than 15,000 TALONs have been collected so far, from sources such as soldiers manning gates outside military bases, law-enforcement agencies, local businesses and the media. The SARs and TALONs -- along with intelligence from the armed forces, such as the U.S. Air Force program known as Eagle Eyes -- are eventually integrated into a single intelligence database called JPEN, for the Joint Protection Enterprise Network.
In its homeland-security role, Northcom has mobilized troops for hundreds of events since 2002, including the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, Boy Scout jamborees and the presidential inauguration. The sixty-four members of its instant command center, including an intelligence team that can be mobilized in hours, have been sent into action at special events nine times in the past two years. In addition, scores of federal agencies -- from the CIA and FBI to the Coast Guard and FEMA -- have officials based at Northcom to coordinate their work. "We're fully integrated with the Special Operations Command," says Maj. Gen. Richard Rowe, Northcom's director of operations. "We have people who've done operations from a Special Ops perspective."
Inside Northcom's operations center, where wall-size screens flank rows of computer terminals linked to federal agencies, military analysts monitor everything from the president's travels to routine air traffic. A placard in the war room lists fourteen events that merit immediate attention -- "we call them 'wake me up in the middle of the night' stuff," says Col. Bob Felderman of Northcom operations. Adds another Northcom official, "We get reports if somebody's pounding on a cockpit door in flight, or there's a drunk passenger, or somebody's taped a note in an airplane restroom." But the list also includes a category for "civil disturbances of more than 1,000 persons" -- a directive broad enough to include an anti-war demonstration or anti-globalization protest.
Keating, a gray-haired commander who led the U.S. Fifth Fleet, insists that Northcom does not spy on Americans. "We are not allowed to gather intelligence on U.S. persons unless there is a clearly defined, well-understood terrorist nexus," he says.
Ever since 1878, when the Posse Comitatus Act barred the U.S. military from taking part in law enforcement, the responsibility for domestic security has traditionally resided with the police and the FBI. The Defense Department, for the most part, has been confined to protecting U.S. military bases. But shortly after September 11th, the Pentagon began muscling in on the FBI's turf. In 2002, in a move that received little public attention, the Bush administration created Counterintelligence Field Activity and charged the new agency with consolidating all Pentagon intelligence to "protect DOD and the nation against espionage, other intelligence activities, sabotage, assassinations and terrorist activities."
The agency got another boost last year when a commission appointed by Bush urged that CIFA be empowered to collect and analyze intelligence "both inside and outside the United States." Three of the commission's consultants, it turns out, were employees of MZM -- one of CIFA's primary contractors -- and federal prosecutors are now looking into whether Pentagon personnel have committed crimes in steering CIFA contracts to MZM. Nevertheless, the president agreed last October to significantly broaden the agency's mission, giving it the authority to actually direct military intelligence operations. From a small unit designed as a clearinghouse for reports, CIFA was transformed overnight into a major arm of domestic intelligence. Both its budget and its staff, thought to be in excess of 1,000 people, are classified.
According to a Defense Department strategy paper, military spying encompasses not only "defense critical infrastructure" -- highways, bridges, communications facilities, chemical plants and nuclear reactors -- but also the "defense industrial base," which the paper describes as "a worldwide industrial complex with capabilities to perform research and development and design, produce, and maintain military weapons systems, subsystems, components or parts to meet military requirements." In other words, the Pentagon sees itself as defending the entire military-industrial complex -- a mission broad enough to include intelligence on virtually any conceivable threat.
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It didn't take long for the pentagon to begin using its new powers to collect intelligence on anti-war groups. In December, NBC News reported that CIFA had collected dozens of incident and threat reports on peace activists and other nonviolent organizations that have nothing to do with terrorism. By matching the unnamed groups in the news reports to specific activities of activists nationwide, the American Civil Liberties Union discovered that the military's spying effort had ensnared the American Friends Service Committee, United for Peace and Justice, and Veterans for Peace, as well as local anti-war groups from Florida to California.
A group at University of California Santa Cruz called Students Against the War was included in CIFA's terrorism database in April 2005, when it staged a protest against military recruiters on campus. Although the protest was peaceful, a TALON report called the demonstration a "threat," an assessment that CIFA deemed "credible." A Florida group called the Truth Project ended up in the database in November 2004, when they gathered at a Quaker meetinghouse to plan a protest against high school recruiting by the military. Five months earlier, ten peace activists in Texas merited a TALON report for donning papier-m?ch? masks and handing out peanut-butter sandwiches to highlight "war profiteering" outside the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney's former firm, the defense contractor Halliburton.
In May 2005, a California group called the Raging Grannies ran afoul of military spies when it helped organize a peaceful Mother's Day demonstration to protest the war in Iraq. Unbeknownst to them, their action was brought to the attention of a new intelligence unit at the California National Guard -- a program that went by the cumbersome title of Information Synchronization, Knowledge Management, and Intelligence Fusion. According to internal e-mails, the Guard forwarded information about the protest "to our Intell folks who continue to monitor."
Asked why the Guard was spying on the Grannies, a spokesman suggested that terrorists might try to take advantage of the activists. "Who knows who could infiltrate that type of group and try to stir something up?" Lt. Col. Stan Zezotarski told reporters. "After all, we live in an age of terrorism, so who knows?"
Joe Dunn, a California state senator, was having none of it. He launched an investigation and helped force the Guard to shut down its intelligence center. "What got us to the point of the National Guard setting up units in which, at least in California, they start down the path of domestic spying?" he asks. "Our fear is that this was part of a federally sponsored effort to set up domestic surveillance programs in a way that would circumvent the Posse Comitatus Act."
The ACLU, which is demanding more information about CIFA's activities, cites a "broad and disturbing pattern" in the military's intelligence gathering, saying the efforts are being used to target legitimate protesters. "The chilling effect of this may be the most significant," says ACLU staff attorney Ben Wizner. "There is a real danger when the military is seen as being used as part of the administration's political goals."
According to Denice Denton, the chancellor at Santa Cruz, the military's covert intelligence operation is already deterring dissent. "It has intimidated people," she says. "I spoke to one of the students involved, and she feels intimidated about speaking openly because she is being watched. Students wonder, 'How was this information being collected? Were people standing behind a tree?' "
Some of the military intelligence, in fact, appears to be based on very little intelligence. "These reports are nothing more than a gossip and rumor index," says Christopher Pyle, a former Army intelligence officer who exposed some of the abuses by military spy agencies in the 1960s. "A lot of them are filed by paranoid housewives and rabid, retired colonels with nothing better to do than spy on the people around them."
With the military spying on peace groups, some activists say they are on the lookout for moles within their own ranks. Ray Del Papa, who attended the Truth Project meeting in Florida, told reporters that he believes government agents infiltrated the organization. "You could pretty much pick out who are the infiltrators," he said. "It gets you mad. It is wrong for anyone from the government to have to spy on U.S. citizens."
No one disputes that the Pentagon has a responsibility to protect its facilities and personnel. But its broad definition of "terrorism" could easily lead it back into the business of targeting legitimate protesters. In the late 1960s, more than 1,500 Army personnel tracked a wide range of dissident groups and monitored every demonstration involving more than twenty people, amassing files on more than 100,000 Americans.
The Pentagon has apologized for the latest abuses and pledged to clean up its act. Robert Rogalski, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for counterintelligence and security, says a complete review of CIFA's database is under way, adding that any data on dissidents was included by mistake. "We've laid our dirty laundry on the table, we recognize that mistakes were made, and we've done the right thing," he says. "It did cause us to realize that we have to sharpen the focus."
But it may be hard to undo the damage. By law, TALON reports that do not warrant further investigation are supposed to be purged from all databases after ninety days. Yet the information is shared with so many agencies, there is simply no way for citizens to know that their names have been cleared. "It's impossible to know how many databases there are," says Jim Harper, an information-policy specialist at the conservative Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. "And every other week, databases are being combined."
The broader threat is that military spies will gradually expand their anti-terrorist mission to include more and more ordinary citizens. "The danger is that we create an apparatus for spying -- and that becomes the essential apparatus of a police state," says Pyle, the former intelligence officer. "It goes from clipping articles to sending people out to watch protesters to taking video and sending it back to the Pentagon. If some kids knock down a power line somewhere, soon they'll be looking at every member of Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front." The military's intelligence gathering got out of hand thirty-five years ago, Pyle observes. "And my sense is," he says, "the bureaucracy forgets stuff like that."
Posted Apr 18, 2006 8:18 PM