Given growing attempts at government surveillance, Alden Eagle, a coordinator for the Rhode Island Community Coalition for Peace (RICCP), seems right on target when he says, “Anybody is a potential terrorist.”
Critics — including Governor Donald L. Carcieri and the American Civil Liberties Union — succeeded last week in convincing the Rhode Island State Police to change legislation so that police won’t be able to get telephone records without a warrant. Still, the challenges facing civil liberties in the post-9/11 age can be seen in how the Pentagon is refusing to release its records on the RICCP and other peaceful protest groups.
Eagle notes that it was a non-violent protest at the Rhode Island National Guard recruitment office on Weybosset Street in Providence that led the Defense Department to spy on anti-war activists. “There’s no legitimacy in this secret spying — we do our events and meetings openly, [so] we’re not hiding anything,” he says. “The category of threat bothers me in particular, because the basic use of our freedom of speech is considered a threat.”
On June 14, the ACLU’s Rhode Island chapter announced plans to join a federal lawsuit filed by the National ACLU in Philadelphia “to force the Defense Department to turn over records it wrongly kept on peace groups throughout the country. Along with with the National ACLU and five other state affiliates, the ACLU of Rhode Island is seeking to uncover any surveillance documents kept by the Pentagon on local peace groups, as well as on the RI ACLU itself.”
The move comes after the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on behalf of the RICCP and other peace groups in February, following revelations of illegal surveillance of protest activities in Rhode Island and elsewhere. The ACLU says no records have been received in response.
Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz birthed the TALON spying program (Threat and Local Observation Notice) in 2003, supposedly so military bases could share information about potential terrorist actions. It was later revealed that a diverse array of peaceful groups, including the American Friends Service Committee, Veterans for Peace, and United for Peace and Justice, were under scrutiny.
It is unclear how the Pentagon obtained this information, although local police departments are considered a possibility, since they have received funds from the federal Department of Homeland Security for counter-protest operations and training.
TALON is just part of a growing wave of domestic spying. Last month, the National Security Agency was revealed to have kept records of millions of residential phone calls (names, numbers, directions, and durations) through cooperation from phone companies, without court order or consumer agreement. The RI ACLU has challenged the practice.
Meanwhile, in the absence of state or federal action about the illegal surveillance on anti-war groups, the RICCP has staged at least one related protest, entitled “All We Want for Christmas is our Secret Files.” For now, awareness is the tool of choice. “Our best option,” remarks Steve Brown, executive director of the RI ACLU, “is educating the public through a coordinated campaign, and encouraging objections.”