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Military Enlists Marketer to Get Data on Students for Recruiters

June 23, 2005|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan making it increasingly hard for the U.S. military to fill its ranks with recruits, the Pentagon has hired an outside marketing firm to help compile an extensive database about teenagers and college students that the military services could use to target potential enlistees.

The initiative, which privacy groups call an unwarranted government intrusion into private life, will compile detailed information about high school students ages 16 to 18, all college students, and Selective Service System registrants. The collected information will include Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, grade-point averages and ethnicities.

The program, run by the Pentagon's Joint Advertising, Market Research and Studies office, is the latest effort to jump-start a recruiting mission hampered by violent images broadcast daily from Iraq.

BeNow Inc., a Massachusetts direct-marketing firm that compiles and analyzes masses of data, will manage the program.

According to the Pentagon's official notice of the program, the new initiative's aim is "to provide a single central facility within the Department of Defense to compile, process and distribute files of individuals who meet age and minimum school requirements for military service."

"The information will be provided to the services to assist them in their direct marketing recruiting efforts," read the notice in the Federal Register, published last month.

The No Child Left Behind Act allows the Pentagon to gather the home addresses and telephone numbers of public-school students. The new Pentagon initiative would be far more extensive, drawing from government databases compiled by state motor vehicle departments and similar agencies.

The program has angered privacy groups, which contend that the Pentagon is risking the misuse of data by handing over such sensitive material to a private firm.

"We think it's a mistake that violates the spirit of the Privacy Act," said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group based in Washington.

The privacy center's official response to the initiative -- also signed by eight representatives of similar organizations -- called the database "an unprecedented foray of the government into direct marketing techniques previously only performed by the private sector."

A Pentagon spokeswoman said the arrangement with BeNow, which was first reported in today's Washington Post, was critical to the military's effort to increase the pool of potential recruits.

"The database is another tool for recruiters to use to find candidates for military service," Air Force Lt. Col Ellen Krenke said late Wednesday.

Krenke pointed out that any students who did not want to be contacted by recruiters could have their names added to a "suppression list" that would keep the information private.

The No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed in 2002, also contains an "opt out" clause allowing parents to sign a form preventing schools from giving information about their children to the military.

The military's ability to obtain student information under No Child Left Behind has sparked a backlash across the country.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last month against the Albuquerque, N.M., school district, alleging that the district did not notify parents that they could prohibit recruiters from getting their child's information.

In Seattle, the parent-teacher association at Garfield High School adopted a nonbinding resolution last month stating that "public schools are not a place for military recruiters."

The controversy has reached Congress. In February, Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-San Jose) introduced legislation, now before a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee, that would exchange the current "opt out" policy for an opt-in policy.

"Parents and their children should automatically receive privacy protection for students' confidential information, and recruiters should have to wait for explicit consent before they have access to these records," Honda wrote in an op-ed article last month in the San Jose Mercury News. He wrote that the National PTA had endorsed his bill.

The Army and the Marine Corps are having difficulty meeting monthly recruiting goals as images of war broadcast daily from Iraq discourage young people who might otherwise be eager to join the military.

Pentagon officials are increasingly worried that the national recruiting downturn is not a short-term slump but a long-term crisis threatening the viability of the all-volunteer military.

One particular problem, Pentagon officials said, is that many parents are advising their children against joining the military, fearing a deployment to Iraq.

Army officials said it was unlikely that the service would meet its 2005 recruiting goals, and Army Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, head of Army Recruiting Command, said recently that he expected even more recruiting problems in 2006 than the Army had this year.

With recruiters struggling to meet monthly quotas, dozens of reports have surfaced of overzealous recruiters using unauthorized tactics -- even threatening some potential enlistees with jail time -- to sign on recruits.

Last month, the Army conducted a national one-day recruiter "stand down" during which every Army recruiter received a refresher course about methods prohibited under Army regulations.

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