In Rhode Island, the Community Coalition for Peace learned last December that its protest outside a National Guard barracks in Providence a year earlier had led to its being listed as a “threat” on a secret Pentagon database of “suspicious incidents.” Said coalition member Shaun Joseph, a University of Rhode Island student: “It’s very disturbing. At no point have we done anything illegal or tried to hurt anybody. We’re trying to stop a war that most people disagree with at this time.”

Earlier this month the national ACLU and chapters in six states, including Maine and Rhode Island, filed Freedom of Information Act requests demanding that the Department of Defense reveal the details of its spying on anti-war groups, as well as on the ACLU itself. The originator of this particular domestic-spying program: Paul Wolfowitz, a principal architect of the war in Iraq and currently president of the World Bank.

The so-called TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice) database was begun by Wolfowitz in 2003 for the ostensible purpose of tracking terrorists. As is inevitably the case with such secret government programs, however, it quickly devolved into a way for the Bush administration to keep tabs on its political opponents.

“The Pentagon should not be collecting and maintaining information about law-abiding Americans who are exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Zachary Heiden, staff attorney for the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “When the government spends its time monitoring Quakers and other peace activists, it doesn’t make us safer but it does make us less free.”

Added Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU: “The sooner that government officials understand that the monitoring of First Amendment activity is none of their business, the safer we will be from true threats to our country.”

Massachusetts Department of Social Services
Gags mother of girl who nearly died in agency's care
The story of Haleigh Poutre is one of terrible tragedy, punctuated by a slight and unexpected ray of hope. The 12-year-old girl from Westfield, beaten into a coma last September, was thought to be beyond recovery when the state’s Department of Social Services (DSS) went to court and sought to end life support. Her stepfather, Jason Strickland, accused of taking part in the abuse, insisted that Haleigh be kept alive, allegedly so that he could avoid being charged with murder.

What happened next was astonishing. Before life support could be ended, Haleigh began to improve. By this spring, she was said to be responsive, interacting with family members and even picking up toys on command.

Obviously the DSS had made a grievous error. But the agency won’t be hearing any criticism from Haleigh’s biological mother, Allison Avrett, who had lost custody of her daughter several years earlier because of reported abuse issues in her own home. That’s because the DSS had imposed a gag order on her. If she kept silent, she would be allowed to visit Haleigh in the hospital. If she spoke out, she would lose any contact with her daughter.

“Why can’t my client speak publicly if Harry Spence can?” asked Wendy Murphy, a prominent lawyer who is representing Avrett pro bono. Spence is the DSS commissioner. And Murphy’s question is a good one. Why is it acceptable that the very agency responsible for mishandling Haleigh’s case is allowed to blackmail her mother into remaining silent?

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