PHILADELPHIA - February 1 - The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) today joined in a series of Freedom of Information Act requests filed across the country to uncover exactly who the Pentagon is spying on and why.
The FOIA requests, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and its affiliates, come in the wake of new evidence revealing the Defense Department has been secretly conducting surveillance of peace groups and protest activities.
“While thousands are dying in Iraq, here at home our government is waging a new war, a ‘war on dissent’ that threatens to dismantle the constitution and severely challenge our country’s basic democratic principles of free speech and peaceful assembly,” said Michael McConnell, director of AFSC’s Great Lakes region, which recently found itself under Pentagon scrutiny.
“If the government has avowed pacifists under surveillance, then no one is safe,” he adds.
Recent reports reveal the Government is spying on its own citizens, and mere attendance at a peace rally could merit placement on a secret Defense Department list of “potential terrorist threats.”
The President now admits secretly authorizing an electronic surveillance program to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the U.S. without court-approved warrants or presenting any evidence of wrong-doing. These revelations have caused a bi-partisan outcry in Congress.
In addition to the Service Committee, the ACLU filed national Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on behalf of Veterans for Peace, United for Peace and Justice and Greenpeace, as well as dozens of local groups in Florida, Georgia, Rhode Island, Maine, Pennsylvania and California. The ACLU is seeking the disclosure of all documents maintained by the Department of Defense on the individual groups. Many of the groups involved in today’s action, such as the Rhode Island-based Community Coalition for Peace, have already learned that they are listed in the Pentagon’s Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) database.
The TALON program was initiated by former Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in 2003 to track groups and individuals with possible links to terrorism. But according to portions of the database that were leaked to the media in December, the Pentagon has been collecting information on peaceful activists and monitoring anti-war and anti-military recruiting protests throughout the United States. Following public outcry over the domestic spying program, current Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England issued a memorandum on January 13 directing intelligence personnel to receive “refresher training on the policies for collection, retention, dissemination and use of information related to U.S. persons.”
At least four of the incidences of surveillance uncovered were activities coordinated or supported by the American Friends Service Committee, a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. Founded by Quakers in 1917, the Service Committee began as a vehicle for conscientious objectors to the First World War to contribute to binding up the wounds of war: by building houses for war victims, feeding hungry children, and clothing the displaced. AFSC has historically felt called to witness against war and for changing the conditions that cause violent conflict.
“How can we speak of spreading democracy in Iraq while dismantling it here at home?” asks Joyce Miller, AFSC associate general secretary for justice and human rights. “Political dissent is fundamental to a free and democratic society. It should not be equated with crime.”
AFSC’s work, always open and resolutely nonviolent, has been under government surveillance for decades. The Service Committee secured nearly 1,700 pages of files from the FBI under a Freedom of Information request in 1976. These files show that the FBI kept files on AFSC that dated back to 1921. Ten other federal agencies kept files on AFSC, including the CIA, Air Force, Navy, Internal Revenue Service, Secret Service, and the State Department. The CIA has intercepted overseas mail and cables in the 1950s, and some AFSC offices (and even its staff's homes) have been infiltrated and burglarized in the late 1960s into the 1970s.
Over and over again, AFSC was targeted as a subversive element, followed by investigations that established that it's a "serious pacifist organization," or a "religious, charitable, peace organization."
“We all want to be safe,” Miller concludes. “However, trampling upon the Bill of Rights and dismantling our constitution will not make us more safe or secure, nor will it erase the threat of terrorism. Conversely, eroding the safeguards of the Constitution make us less safe and destroy the principles of democracy on which our country was founded.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on National Security Agency eavesdropping starting February 6, 2006.