Pentagon improperly kept information on citizens


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

The Defense Department set up the database in May 2003 as a way to formally record possible terrorist-related activities inside 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 of the information in the system did not suggest a potential threat and should have been removed. The Pentagon said that of 13,000 reports, fewer than 2 percent were improperly retained in the system.

A Pentagon spokesman would not characterize the TALON reports that the investigation determined should have been excised. But a department-wide memo issued Tuesday by Gordon R. 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 there is a suspicion they are working on behalf of a foreign government or terrorist organization, also prohibit military officials from holding onto data concerning U.S. citizens for longer than 90 days if nothing warranting further investigation is uncovered.

England's memo also said the TALON investigation concluded that 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.

Despite the controversy, England said the investigation showed that the system remains a useful tool to counter possible terrorist plots, adding it has detected interest by terrorist groups in specific military bases. England's memo called TALON an "innovative initiative" to document and distribute "unfiltered and nonvalidated" threat information.

"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 has instituted changes in the TALON system, including adding a layer of analysts who will 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 meant that any changes instituted by England or the system's administrators might not be good enough.

"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 any more. There needs to be an external check and balance to restore confidence in the system."

Aftergood added that while the internal review was welcome, it was disturbing that the Pentagon was prodded 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 Stephen Cambone, the Pentagon official who oversees the department's intelligence activities, to convene a "working group" to re-evaluate the way the department pulls together its threat information.

He also ordered Pentagon intelligence oversight officials to review TALON's performance on an annual basis.

Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times

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