Pentagon lets go of TALON

Move follows complaints about domestic spying, questions of efficiency

Cornerstone system soldiers on

Data that military intelligence officers and other authorized users received via the TALON reporting method flowed into the Cornerstone database of counterterrorist information maintained by the Counterintelligence Field Activity, according to Pentagon documents. Cornerstone itself formed part of the CIFA Collaboration and Data Storage Center, according to department budget justification documents.

According to Pentagon guidance documents and the department's inspector general, Cornerstone eventually included 2,821 TALON reports with 'U.S. person information,' which referred to individuals or organizations within the country.

The Defense Department eventually deleted 1,131 TALON reports that officials found had been improperly retained. Of that number, 186 concerned anti-military protests or demonstrations, according to department documents.

The military identified problems in using the Cornerstone database as a domestic spying tool, according to an internal report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union.

'The technological premise was that if you take all the random stuff'reported and put it in a computer, the computer will generate useful information.' ' JIM DEMPSEY, CENTER FOR DEMOCRACY AND TECHNOLOGY

GCN Photo by J. Adam Fenster

The Defense Department's recent announcement that it would end a controversial and possibly useless domestic intelligence reporting method but it left in place the technology DOD uses to process and hold a broad range of digital counterterrorism data, according to sources and budget documents.

The Pentagon announced last week that it would close the Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) 'database' that contained unfiltered reports about possible threats to domestic and overseas military installations.

TALON had come under legal fire as a means of gathering information about peaceful antiwar protest groups, including the American Friends Service Committee.

But a review of budget documents and DOD directives about TALON showed that it consisted not of a database but of a method of gathering reports that flowed into a larger system that will continue to operate: the Cornerstone database run by the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA).

The decision to shut down TALON reporting resonated with parallel litigation and debate over the legal status of federal monitoring of international telecommunications.

Technological changes in international telecommunications that have arisen since the disclosure of Vietnam War-era domestic spying prompted new civil-liberties protections that figure in current privacy debates.

The Pentagon said it will close TALON as of Sept. 17 and 'maintain a record copy of the collected data in accordance with intelligence oversight requirements,' according to a department press statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which had sued DOD under the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to TALON records, praised the decision to shut down the system.

Army Col. Gary Keck, a Pentagon public relations officer, said TALON was being closed because reporting to the system had declined significantly and was determined to no longer be of analytical value.

'The department is working to develop a new reporting system to replace TALON, but in the interim, all information concerning force protection threats will go to the FBI's Guardian reporting system,' the Pentagon press release stated.

Jim Dempsey, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy advocacy group, criticized TALON's premise that unfocused intelligence gathering could bear fruit.

'The technological premise of TALON was that if you take all the random stuff that is reported out there and put it in a computer, the computer will generate useful information. But you can get yourself trapped in a very low signal-to-noise ratio by that reasoning,' Dempsey said, referring to the high proportion of useless information the vacuum-cleaner approach can generate.

TALON received data partly from the CIFA, a shadowy and extensive domestic spying operation established at the behest of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with the aim of helping to protect military installations inside the country and abroad.

The department said that the TALON system 'came under fire in 2005 for improperly storing information about some civilian individuals and non-government-affiliated groups in its database.'

The Pentagon press release said the department had reviewed TALON in December 2005 and purged 'a large amount of information that was deemed unnecessary from the database.'

The press release added that a June report by the department's inspector general found that the department had 'maintained TALON reports without determining whether the information should be retained for law enforcement and force protection purposes.'

Keck said the Pentagon would evaluate whether to establish a replacement for TALON or use existing systems, such as Guardian, to meet the department's force protection needs. The department said there is no timeline to establish a new system.

Unanswered questions

'There is still too much that remains unanswered about the Pentagon's surveillance activities in this country,' said Caroline Fredrickson, director of ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. 'The TALON program could be just the tip of the iceberg. It remains critical that Congress investigate how the abuse of the TALON database happened in the first place and conduct proper oversight of other intrusive surveillance by the executive branch.'

The dispute over the use or misuse of the TALON technology recalled earlier periods when peaceful antiwar protesters became subject to federal electronic surveillance and recordkeeping.

Martin Luther King Jr. and many other critics of the Vietnam War became subject to such federal monitoring, which, when revealed, prompted legislation establishing the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Monitoring Act court warrant process among other civil-liberties shields.

Congress is likely to address related privacy issues anew when it returns from its summer recess.

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