WASHINGTON – As many as 260 reports in a classified Defense Department database on suspicious people or activities were improperly collected or kept there, the Pentagon said Wednesday in a review that also found the system to be a valuable tool in terrorism investigations.
The review was ordered last December after reports that the database collected information on anti-war groups and U.S. citizens — prompting members of Congress and others to raise questions about possible domestic spying.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said there are 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.
Pentagon officials wouldn't discuss details of the classified database, including what specifically the improper entries contained.
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, in a memo dated March 30 and released Wednesday, called the program productive and said it "has detected international terrorist interest in specific military bases and has led to and supported counterterrorism investigations."
England also noted, however, that the system should only be used to report information about "possible international terrorist activity." And he said that to insure the program is working properly, he ordered an annual review of the system, and set up a working group to examine how well Pentagon agencies are coordinating their collection and use of the data.
Known as TALON — or the Threat and Local Observation Notice — the system was 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.
The TALON reports — collected by a wide array of Defense Department agencies including law enforcement, intelligence, counterintelligence and security — are then compiled in a large database and analyzed by an obscure Pentagon agency, the Counterintelligence Field Activity. CIFA is a three-year old outfit whose size and budget are classified as secret.
The review, said Whitman, "confirmed that the TALON reporting system is important and that it should be used to report information regarding possible international terrorist activity."
Whitman said some people using the database may have considered it a way to collect more general threat information, rather than data on "suspicious activity linked to possible international terrorists."
Whitman said Defense Department personnel who use the database also have gone through a refresher course on what should or should not be included. And, he said, there are new requirements that supervisors must review all the reports before they are submitted to the Counterintelligence Field Activity for entry into the database. Then CIFA must also review them before entering them in the database.
The database was first reported by NBC, which said it included nearly four dozen anti-war meetings or protests, including some that have taken place far from any military installation or recruitment center.