A group of Quakers who were protesting military recruitment efforts at a Florida high school recently learned their meeting was included on a secret Pentagon database of "suspicious incidents." When that news broke last month, it had a familiar ring for many American Quakers.
"With the restriction of civil liberties goes surveillance," says Don Weinholtz, a Quaker who lives in Windsor. "It just seems to be a very unfortunate natural course of events."
The Religious Society of Friends is one of the largest groups of Quakers in the United States, with about 600,000 members worldwide. They embrace beliefs, called testimonies, that include peace, equality and rejection of war in all its forms.
Quaker groups and members have come under government surveillance and infiltration at various times in history, from the McCarthy era to Vietnam. The pacifist church was in the forefront of protest in the run-up to the Iraq war and since then has worked to counter military recruitment efforts in high schools.
"There are points in time where it is just a bedrock matter of faith that Quakers feel they must step forward," says Weinholtz, a member of the Hartford Quaker Meeting.
Last month, NBC News broke the story that the meeting of Quakers in Lake Worth, Fla., was one of about 1,500 allegedly suspicious incidents included in the Defense Department's secret TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice) reporting system. Recent reports have said Quaker activities in Ohio and Vermont also may have been scrutinized under the program.
The database obtained by NBC showed that the Pentagon also had labeled as "threats" counter-military recruiting protests and other planned demonstrations around the country, including one at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
A Defense Department spokesman said last week that the TALON program is intended to deal with suspicious activity and threats to national security before an attack occurs. "Unfiltered" information in the database can come from law enforcement, counter-intelligence or even concerned citizens, he said. The information then becomes a "dot" that could later be connected to other "dots" to identify a possible terrorist attack plot in its early stages. The information is shared with law enforcement, intelligence and other government security agencies and analyzed.
The spokesman, who declined to be identified by name, said information that does not belong in the database is not deleted but is instead placed in an oversight file after a period of time.
Peter Goselin, an attorney for the Connecticut chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said Thursday that a number of peace organizations are considering joining together to file mass Freedom of Information requests of the state and federal government to determine if lawful political protest is under surveillance here.
"Over the last couple of months, there have been a number of disclosures concerning improper and illegal surveillance actions by everything from the [National Security Agency] and the [Defense Department] to the New York Police Department," Goselin said. "These activities would be a violation of political or religious freedom."
Michael McConnell, regional director of the American Friends Service Committee in the Midwest, says that documents the AFSC has received over the years through Freedom of Information requests reveal that the social-action Quaker organization was the target of FBI surveillance and infiltration dating to the 1970s under a government effort to "neutralize" political dissidents.
"Given the history, I'm not surprised [about the recent surveillance of Quakers], but it is outrageous," McConnell says, noting that the Chicago office where he works has evidence that over the years Chicago police and the FBI have spied on and infiltrated his organization's protests at presidential inaugurations and military recruiting offices. "There are real threats out there," he says, "but it does not come from groups engaged in lawful public protest whose goals are publicly stated."
John Humphries, a Hartford resident and Quaker activist who traveled to Iraq before the war in defiance of U.S. sanctions, says that as citizens and people of faith, Quakers are called on to follow a higher law and to take personal responsibility when their government violates international law, which he believes has occurred with the Iraq war.
"What we do comes from moral and deep spiritual conviction. We have a long pacifist history," says Humphries, a member of Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice, a faith-based peace group. "Under the current situation, this is an administration that finds that threatening, and it goes into attack mode against people upholding their rights and responsibilities as citizens."
Local Quakers say they do not plan to change or stop their activities, even though they could someday wind up in the Defense Department's files.
Emily Chasse has done counter-military recruiting at Conard High School in West Hartford for the past three years. "I think it helps parents and kids to know they can have their names taken off the list so they won't be called by recruiters, and that there are other options out there," says Chasse. "I'm sure the Department of Defense doesn't like that we do that."
Abigail E. Adams, a member of the Storrs Friends Meeting, says that for a peace activity to be seen as a threat "is a very sad thing," but that public awareness about the reported surveillance could prompt people to ask more questions.
"I'm hoping that this will heighten people's awareness that concerns over security [are] trumping the foundations of our country and the Constitution," Adams says. "I would hope that this will start what Quakers call a query - an open-ended question that starts you on the road to a broader perspective."
Jim Cason, a spokesman for the Friends Committee for National Legislation, based in Washington, called for an investigation of both the Florida surveillance case and reports that the National Security Agency has conducted warrant-less wiretaps on thousands of Americans.
Cason says members of the Florida group were upset to learn they had been targets of federal government surveillance, and that if Pentagon representatives wanted to come talk to them in an open meeting about their activities, they would have been welcomed.
John Stamm, 86, a West Hartford resident, called the new round of surveillance "no surprise at all." Stamm, a Quaker, is a regular at the weekly Saturday morning peace vigil in West Hartford and also participated in anti-war protests during the Vietnam War.
Stamm came to this country as a German refugee, and during his 1947 citizenship hearing, he recalls being asked about his membership in an interfaith peace group founded by an English Quaker and a German Lutheran during World War I.
"I didn't tell them about it; they asked me about it, which was totally unexpected," he says. "I believe a lot of Quakers have been under individual surveillance over the years."
In the wake of reports that an anti-war protest sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee in Vermont was monitored by the Defense Department, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a letter dated Dec. 21 asking him to "describe the Department's efforts to collect intelligence in Vermont ... and the basis for determining that the target was a threat to Defense Department installations, interests and personnel." David Carle, a spokesman for Leahy, said the senator still has not received a reply.
Joseph Gainza, field secretary of the AFSC in Vermont, says the group learned that its activities were described in a March 7, 2005, report that noted a counter-military recruitment activity would take place about a week later. "People have been very supportive of us and angered that the U.S. government would spend American tax dollars on something like this," Gainza says. "Frankly, I wasn't surprised, but I did wonder why they didn't have better things to do."
Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant