Published June 18, 2009
The Pentagon has removed a controversial question from its anti-terrorism training exam that labeled “protests” a form of “low-level terrorism,” calling the question “poorly worded.”
A Pentagon spokesman said the question failed to make clear the difference between illegal violent demonstrations and constitutionally protected peaceful protests.
Civil libertarians and activist groups, interviewed by FOXNews.com for a story that appeared on Wednesday, had objected strongly to the exam question, which a Department of Defense employee had printed and given to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The question asked:
“Which of the following is an example of low-level terrorism?”
— Attacking the Pentagon
— Hate crimes against racial groups
The correct answer, according to the exam, was "Protests."
“They should have made it clearer there’s a clear difference between illegal violent demonstrations and peaceful, constitutionally protected protests,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Les Melnyk said on Thursday.
Asked when a protest becomes an “illegal, violent demonstration,” Melnyk said, “I’m not a lawyer. I couldn’t get into the specifics of when you cross the line.”
“If you’re doing physical damage to people or property, that could fall into that,” he said.
The ACLU had written a letter to the Pentagon last week asking it to remove the question from the exam, which is a part of defense employees' routine training.
The Pentagon will not try to identify the employee who printed out the question and gave it to the ACLU, Melnyk said.
“Sharing that with the ACLU wouldn’t be any sort of misconduct,” he said.
Of the Defense Department’s 3 million employees, 1,546 took the exam, Melnyk said. All will be sent e-mails “explaining the error and the distinction between lawful protests and unlawful violent protests,” he wrote in an e-mail.
He added that many Defense employees work in countries where violent demonstrations are regular occurrences.
“In those situations, that anti-Americanism might be taken out on an American in the crowd,” Melnyk said.
George Martin, national co-chairman of United for Peace and Justice, an anti-war group, said he was satisfied with the decision to remove the question.
"There is a distinction between legal, non-violent action and violent demonstrations. That’s where the mainstream peace movement comes from," Martin said.
"I'm glad to see that question was removed. How the government directs its employees to deal with its citizens is critical."
Ann Brick, an attorney with the ACLU, said "I'd like to talk to them about what steps they're going to take to make sure mistakes like this don’t happen in the future.
"There's a need for some education, not just for the people taking the course, but for the people designing these tests. They need some education in fundamental constitutional principles."
Earlier this week, Brick called the question “part of a pattern of equating dissent and protest with terrorism.”
"It undermines the core constitutional values the Department of Defense is supposed to be defending,” Brick said, referring to the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble.
The language of the question raised flags across the political spectrum, with both anti-war demonstrators and tea party participants interpreting it as an indication of the Pentagon’s indifference to citizens’ civil liberties.
“To equate that in any degree with citizens being able to express themselves seems to me to be headed down a road where all dissent is suspect and questionable,” Bill Wilson, president of the Americans for Limited Government, said on Wednesday.