An anti-terrorist database used by the US Defense Department in an effort to prevent attacks against military installations included intelligence tips about antiwar planning meetings held at churches, libraries, college campuses and other locations, newly disclosed documents show.
One tip in the database in February last year, for instance, noted that "a church service for peace" would be held in the New York City area the next month. Another entry noted that antiwar protesters would be holding "nonviolence training" sessions at unidentified churches in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
The Defense Department tightened its procedures earlier this year to ensure that only material related to actual terrorist threats -- and not peaceable First Amendment activity -- was included in the database.
The head of the office that runs the military database, which is known as Talon, said on Monday that material on antiwar protests should not have been collected in the first place.
"I don't want it, we shouldn't have had it, not interested in it," said Daniel Baur, acting director of the counterintelligence field activity unit, which runs the Talon program at the Defense Department.
"I don't want to deal with it," he said.
Baur said that those operating the database had misinterpreted their mandate and that what was intended as an anti-terrorist database became, in some respects, a catch-all for leads on possible disruptions and threats against military installations in the US, including protests against the military presence in Iraq.
"I don't think the policy was as clear as it could have been," he said. Once the problem was discovered, he said, "we fixed it," and more than 180 entries in the database related to war protests were deleted from the system last year. Out of 13,000 entries in the database, many of them uncorroborated leads on possible terrorist threats, several thousand others were also purged because he said they had "no continuing relevance."
Amid public controversy over the database, leads from so-called neighborhood watch programs and other tips about possible threats are down significantly this year, Baur said. While the system had been tightened, he said he was concerned that the public scrutiny had created "a huge chilling effect" that could lead the military to miss legitimate terrorist threats.
Baur was responding to the latest batch of documents produced by the military under a Freedom of Information Act request brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups. The ACLU planned to release the documents publicly yesterday, and officials with the group said they would push for Democrats, newly empowered in Congress, to hold formal hearings about the Talon database.