Servicemembers Legal Defense Network discovers references to gay groups in documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act
Department of Defense intelligence analysts monitoring campus protests against military recruiters were not only playing fast and loose with the First Amendment, they were also apparently woefully out of touch with the object of their investigation.
According to documents delivered in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and several other GLBT organizations, the Pentagon’s intelligence offshoot worried that an e-mail reference to the GLBT law student group “OUTlaws” could be a call to arms.
In February 2005, New York University law students sent around an e-mail announcing plans to protest a symposium by military recruiters.
“The details have yet to be worked out,” wrote the activists, “as the protest may involve OUTlaws from other schools participating in the symposium.”
That campus demonstration was one of many that came under the scrutiny of a three-year-old unit called the Counterintelligence Field Activity, which in turn collected raw information through a program called TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice).
Originally designed to watch for signs of terrorist plotting within U.S. borders, the TALON system eventually set its sights on a broad range of domestic demonstrations, from small anti-war protests in Florida, to routine campus opposition to military recruiting in New York and elsewhere.
The TALON report on the New York symposium warned that the term “OUTlaw” was “not defined” in the e-mail and could be “a security issue.”
“Specifically,” wrote the agent, “the term OUTlaw is a backhanded way of saying that it’s all right to commit possible violence and serve as vigilantes during the symposium. Therefore, it is possible that physical harm or vandalism could occur at this event.”
In an “update,” the agent adds that “per a U.S. Army Counterintelligence Agent and based on additional research from the original source, the term “OUTlaws” may refer to members of the gay community that are now “‘out’ in the open and are studying at law schools.”
However, the agent continued, since “there is almost nothing about the term “OUTlaws” available with conventional Internet search enginesthe source believes there is still a potential for confrontation at NYU.”
Steve Ralls, a Servicemembers Legal Defense Network spokesman, said the most surprising thing about the documents was the clueless analysis of the so-called intelligence operatives.
“It makes you wonder who’s looking for Osama Bin Laden,” he said.
“Maybe they haven’t found him for a reason.”
The activities of TALON were first reported by NBC News in December, prompting the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network to lodge a series of FOIA requests in January After a month of foot dragging by various government agencies, the network filed a federal lawsuit, which spurred the Defense Department to unearth TALON reports on the NYU protest, as well as reports on similar demonstrations at the University of California in Santa Cruz and Berkeley.
According to Ralls, the search continues for additional documents, and the government is working with the gay rights groups to find more paperwork.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has promised to clarify the rules and regulations that govern the investigation of American citizens, and will purge the TALON database of inappropriate material.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 14, 2006.