WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday demanding more information about a Defense Department database that collected information on anti-war groups and U.S. citizens.
The lawsuit asks that the Defense Department turn over records it collected in its TALON database, a system developed by the Air Force in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a way to collect information about possible terrorist threats.
Anti-war groups and other organizations, including a Quaker group — the American Friends Service Committee — protested after it became public that the military had monitored anti-war activities, organizations, and individuals who attended peace rallies.
"The U.S. military should not be in the business of maintaining secret databases about lawful First Amendment activities," said ACLU attorney Ben Wizner. "It is an abuse of power and an abuse of trust for the military to play any role in monitoring critics of administration policies."
ACLU affiliates in Florida, Georgia, Rhode Island, Maine, Pennsylvania and Washington, along with more than two dozen activist groups, joined the lawsuit, which charges that the Pentagon is violating federal freedom of information laws by refusing to provide information on the database.
Pentagon officials did an internal review of TALON — or the Threat and Local Observation Notice — and concluded that it was an important tool in counterterrorism investigations. The review also found that as many 260 reports were improperly collected or kept in the system.
At the time, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said there were about 13,000 entries in the database, and that less than 2 percent either were wrongly added or were not purged later when they were determined not to be real threats.
The ACLU lawsuit argues that the organizations and individuals monitored by the Pentagon have a right to know what information the military has collected about them.
"Spying on citizens for merely executing their constitutional rights of free speech and peaceful assembly is chilling and marks a troubling trend for the United States," said Joyce Miller, assistant general secretary for justice and human rights of the American Friends Service Committee. "These actions violate the rule of law and strike a severe blow against our Constitution."