Alison Espach | Correspondent | Monday, June 19, 2006
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) has filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in order to obtain any federal documents referring to the investigation and/or surveillance of the New York University (NYU) homosexual advocacy group OUTlaw and the University of California at Santa Cruz group Students Against War.
The NYU group protested the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and military recruitment policies on Feb. 4, 2005, and the UC-Santa Cruz group conducted a similar demonstration as well as a homosexual "kiss-in" on April 5, 2005. The Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy prohibits members of the U.S. military from disclosing their homosexuality, but it also blocks military supervisors from investigating or asking if a service member is homosexual.
NBC News, citing a 400-page Department of Defense document, reported on Dec. 14, 2005, that OUTlaw and Students Against War had been labeled a "credible threat" to national security. The network also reported that the Pentagon had been screening email and photographing individuals belonging to the NYU and UC Santa Cruz groups.
A month later, the SLDN filed its FOIA request, but in response received only 16 pages of documents that were partially blacked out and described as a Pentagon "interim response" to the Jan. 5, 2006, FOIA request.
"The documentation we have obtained indicated that there was some concern that the demonstration organized by the groups constituted either 'terrorist activity' or in the DOD's (Department of Defense) word, 'vigilante activity,'" said Steve Ralls, communications director for the SLDN.
That characterization "outraged" the SLDN, according to a press release issued by the group, since it showed the government's attempt to suppress the "exercising of a student's free speech right."
"We are very concerned and I would even say outraged that the federal government considers the exercise of our constitutional free speech right to be a threat to national security, and in fact, it is the suppression of those rights that is the threat to national security, not the exercise of them," said Ralls.
However, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Feb. 3 of this year called the documents obtained by the SLDN "no big deal" in a DOD press briefing. He added that there was no correlation between the Pentagon's surveillance and the fact that the protesters included homosexuals. A DOD statement claimed that suspicion was aroused because of the group's name -- OUTlaw - which fueled fears of "civil disobedience" at the protest.
The Department of Defense is expected to furnish additional material "in the next week," related to the SLDN FOIA request, Ralls told Cybercast News Service on Thursday, June 15. But the SLDN has also sought information from the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) as a way of "covering all the bases," Ralls said.
The DOJ has indicated that it did not conduct surveillance, but the NSA has twice refused - most recently in a June 5 letter -- to answer whether the agency was involved. Ralls said the SLDN remains "suspicious," of the NSA, adding that "if there is no information there, the NSA should just say there is no information there."
However, Ralls acknowledged that there was currently "no documentation" to implicate the NSA in the surveillance controversy.
In the NSA's June 5 letter to the SLDN, the spy agency explained that its refusal to confirm or deny any involvement in the surveillance was linked to national security.
"The information remains currently and properly classified SECRET and TOP SECRET," the NSA letter stated. "The documents are classified because their exposure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to national security."
One of the consequences of sharing internal documents, the NSA letter stated, was that the "give and take among agency members in the formulation of policy" would "be harmed if participants could not engage in internal debates without fear of public scrutiny."
But the SLDN on June 6 warned that the government's domestic surveillance had created a real-life version of the famous book written by George Orwell. "2006 is the new 1984," SLDN executive director C. Dixon Osburn stated in a June 6 press release.
"The federal government's Orwellian surveillance programs of ordinary, law-abiding citizens, violates our right to privacy under current law. The government's refusal to disclose its surveillance programs erodes the public trust," Osburn added.
Ralls also expressed concern for the future safety and confidentiality of his group's clients. "Lesbian and gay service members contact us for confidential legal counseling," he said, adding that he suspects the SLDN itself is currently under surveillance. "Specific monitoring of our phone calls or our email communication could violate our confidentiality we have with the men and women."
The SLDN has five years to appeal the NSA's decision not to release any information. Ralls said the group's attorneys have not yet decided what their next step might be.
But Ralls offered a parting shot. "This administration and its agencies are very reluctant to run a transparent government," he said, adding that he considers it a challenge "to encourage our government to live up to its motto of by the people, for the people, and of the people."
The NSA did not return any phone calls for comment.
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