Antiterror database may be dropped
By Mark Mazzetti, New York Times News Service | April 25, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon's new intelligence chief intends to dismantle an antiterrorism database that civil liberties groups have criticized for gathering information about antiwar groups, churches, and student activists, Defense Department officials said yesterday.

The database was begun in 2003 to house intelligence reports about possible threats to military bases within the United States, but it was expanded to include reports by local law enforcement agencies and military security personnel about nonviolent demonstrations and rallies.

The decision is one of the first moves by James R. Clapper since he took over as the Pentagon's top intelligence official this month. Department officials said Clapper had recommended to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that the database, called Talon, be dismantled.

A Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said Gates would make the ultimate decision about Talon.

The decision to scuttle the database could be the first step in a broad overhaul of Pentagon intelligence activities under Gates, who has made public his distaste for some intelligence initiatives begun by his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld.

A senior department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Gates has not made any final decisions, said Clapper was concerned about the negative publicity surrounding the Talon database and told Gates the Pentagon could find other ways to assess threats to military installations.

Civil liberties groups and some members of Congress criticized the database, which was run by the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Field Activity office, suggesting it was an effort by the military to expand its domestic spying operations under the guise of combating terrorism.

A lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, Ben Wizner, called Clapper's decision a "positive step," but said he was concerned that the Pentagon could carry out similar activities in the future under different names. "What we don't know about Pentagon surveillance within the United States far exceeds what we do know," Wizner said.

Rumsfeld had long criticized the capabilities of American intelligence agencies and had moved during his tenure to improve and expand military intelligence collection worldwide. Both Rumsfeld and his intelligence chief, Stephen A. Cambone, were viewed with suspicion by many in the intelligence community who believed the Pentagon was trying a power grab from other spy agencies.

Most of what is publicly known about the Talon database was found in documents released last year by the Pentagon in response to a request from the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act.

Among the database entries were one from February 2005 that noted that a "church service for peace" would be held in the New York City area and another disclosing that military officials had labeled a March 2005 "Stop the War Now" rally in Akron, Ohio, a "potential terrorist activity."

Pentagon officials said last year that some of the controversial Talon reports had made it into the database by accident and that some had been kept in Talon past the 90 days that department guidelines allowed.