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Pentagon Threat Database Kept Reports It Shouldn't Have

April 06, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A controversial Pentagon database that tracked information on incidents including peaceful war protests improperly retained reports that should have been removed, according to an internal review.

The Defense Department set up the database in May 2003 to record possible terrorist-related activities in the United States -- such as suspicious surveillance of government buildings -- and to disseminate the information to military and law enforcement agencies.

But the review of the database, known as the Threat and Local Observation Notice system, or TALON, found that some information in the system did not suggest a threat and should have been removed. The Pentagon said that of 13,000 reports, less than 2% were improperly retained.

A Pentagon spokesman would not characterize the reports that the investigation determined should have been excised. But a department-wide memo issued Wednesday by Gordon England, the deputy Defense secretary, directed the system's users to adhere to regulations that limit the Pentagon's ability to gather information on U.S. citizens.

The regulations, which do not allow collection of information on citizens unless they are suspected of working on behalf of a foreign government or terrorist organization, also prohibit military officials from holding on to data concerning U.S. citizens for longer than 90 days if nothing warranting further investigation is uncovered.

England's memo also says the TALON investigation had concluded the system "should be used only to report information regarding possible international terrorist activity."

"There were some errors there, but we corrected these errors," said Cmdr. Greg Hicks, a Pentagon spokesman. "We removed the reports that shouldn't have been there."

The review of TALON was ordered in January after reports that officials were using it to record information on antiwar meetings and peaceful protests. NBC News first reported that the database was used to monitor peace activists.

England said the investigation showed that the system remained a useful tool to counter possible terrorist plots. It has detected interest by terrorist groups in specific military bases, he said.

"The information is reported by concerned citizens and department personnel or obtained through information sharing with civilian law enforcement agencies," England wrote. "The program has been productive."

Hicks, the Pentagon spokesman, said the department had already instituted changes in the TALON system, including adding a layer of analysts to look at the raw reports before they are fed into the department-wide database.

But privacy experts said the Bush administration's record on domestic spying and information gathering could cast doubt on changes instituted by England or the system's administrators.

"It's a 'trust me' response," said Steven Aftergood, who tracks government secrecy issues for the Federation of American Scientists.

"That's not good enough anymore. There needs to be an external check and balance to restore confidence in the system."

Aftergood added that although the internal review was welcome, it was disturbing that the Pentagon had decided to remove the reports only after a public controversy erupted.

"That's an indication existing oversight mechanisms are inadequate," he said. "Either Congress is not doing its job or internal checks on the system aren't working. It seems there needs to be a scandal from time to time for DoD intelligence to clean up its act."

In his memo, England said his directives on TALON were only temporary, and he ordered a working group to reevaluate the way the department pulls together its threat information.

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