I just heard that the Pentagon plans to shut down its TALON database operation. It's about time. The Pentagon claims it is pulling the plug because the information it gathers is no longer useful, but it seems likely that the negative exposure the Pentagon received after it became clear that it was spying on U.S. citizens -- like me -- played a significant role in the decision.
I never know whether to laugh outright or to answer seriously when someone asks me if I am a terrorist. Obviously, any suggestion of my connections to terrorist organizations is nothing short of ridiculous. I assume that those asking the question are kidding, and, of course, they usually are. Yet I hesitate in my answer because that very connection, as preposterous as it is, is one the government made when it listed hundreds of antiwar groups in the TALON database.
In December 2005, I was home with my parents, enjoying my winter vacation. In the evening of the 13th, I turned on my computer to read the news and (for the nth time that day) to check my email. As I scrolled through my inbox, I read something that really caught my attention. A link to an MSNBC report revealed that Students Against War, a group I was (and still am) a member of at the University of California at Santa Cruz, was being labeled a "credible threat" by the Pentagon. This classification was made after Students Against War staged a rally in opposition to military recruitment on campus. I must say -- being on a "terrorist" watch list was a sobering moment. It was a realization of the fact that our government, one that was supposed to protect every citizen's right to self-expression, was the one violating our rights.
TALON was a Pentagon program that was originally designed to track possible threats to military bases, but expanded in scope to include reports about non-violent demonstrations and anti-war rallies. It has always been a wonder to me how this happened -- how a group of Santa Cruz students, along with Quaker and church groups, found itself on a terrorist monitoring database. This was not only ridiculous, but wrong. I also realized that being on the list had grave implications not only for our organization but for the rest of America: after all, if college students and religious groups were being listed as credible threats, then who was safe from surveillance?
Clearly, when fighting for what we believe in is wrong, there is something wrong with America. The free exchange of ideas is critical for a democracy to function and flourish. If that freedom is compromised, what are we fighting for, anyway?
Furthermore, I think that the misuses of the TALON program pinpoint the fact that unchecked spying just doesn't work. It is a grave waste of energy, resources, and undoubtedly money, to put innocent civilians on government watch lists. From my perspective, this was not only a counterproductive program but also a failure.
We must continue to work to challenge the policies that allow for misuses of government power such as TALON to occur in the first place. It is important to question whether the incidents of domestic intrusion we hear about are anomalies or represent a larger trend of violations. So while I am happy that the TALON database is being closed, I am wary that if we are not vigilant, another similar program will be put in its place. I am cautiously optimistic.
The Pentagon claims that, until recently, the TALON program yielded good information. But we have to ask if that can ever justify spying on innocent people. To me, the answer is clear.