Big Brother's big chill on campus

January 27, 2006

With the Pentagon branding peaceful student protests potential threats to national security, Stephen Phillips asks if America's war on terror is leading to more surveillance of university activities

It was an effective operation as far as members of the Students against War group at the University of California, Santa Cruz, were concerned. The protest last April led military recruiters to withdraw from a campus career fair. "The students marched in and refused to leave until the military recruiters left," says Josh Sonnenfeld, a third-year student of feminist and community studies.

What Sonnenfeld did not know at the time was that he had participated in an event considered a "credible threat" by the US Department of Defence, according to a database whose contents were leaked last month to the broadcaster NBC. In fact, the Santa Cruz protest is one of ten campus entries - including student demonstrations at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin and New York University - cited in an excerpt from a reported 400-page classified Pentagon document on more than 1,500 recent "suspicious incidents".

The report was leaked amid revelations of a broadening of US domestic surveillance since the 2001 terrorist attacks that included a 2002 order by President George W. Bush authorising eavesdropping without warrants on international e-mails and phone calls to people in the US. It has prompted concern about the extent to which campuses may be under surveillance.

Denice Denton, chancellor of Santa Cruz, says the report shocked her. She wants lawmakers representing the campus to ask Bush Administration officials: "What's the meaning of 'credible threat?'" She also wants to know how the information was collected. She says officials at Santa Cruz and the other campuses are considering issuing a joint statement to express their concerns.

The Pentagon has refused to comment on the NBC story. But a spokesman, who asked to remain anonymous, says the Department of Defence does harvest "information" for a system called the Threat and Local Observation Notice (Talon). He characterises this as an "input system" that contains "unfiltered information" that is "not overtly collected". Its aim is to gather "dots of information" that are then dissected by intelligence analysts "to see if they connect up... so we can intercept potential attacks". For "dots" to be fair game, they must involve "protection of Department of Defence installations, personnel or assets, or (constitute) national security (threats)", he says. Information is based on reports from law-enforcement agencies, "concerned citizens" and military personnel.

"It's not a field agent type of thing," the spokesman adds. Talon is administered by a Pentagon agency called Counterintelligence Field Activity (Cifa), he says, which in October began a review of the database "to ensure it complies fully with... US laws (and) to identify any other information that is (held) improperly in the database."

The reported Pentagon investigation of the Santa Cruz protest prompted Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat Senator for California, to express her concern to Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. In a letter dated January 10, she writes: "In discussions with my staff, Cifa personnel have confirmed that a Talon report was written on this student protest and was, until recently, maintained in Cifa's database." Others on the list include peace activists in Florida and an anti-war demonstration in Hollywood. And then there are more obvious security threats, such as someone taking photographs outside a military recruitment post.

Although there is a reference to an unspecified "possible violent demonstration at NYU", the Santa Cruz incident is the only campus protest declared a "credible threat". But even at institutions where protests were discounted as "not credible", there is surprise that they are on the list at all.

Military recruitment on campuses has been a cause of friction since long before the war in Iraq. Passage of the controversial 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which ended the military's previous practice of inquiring into recruits' sexual orientation but in effect barring openly gay individuals from serving, led several campuses to ban the military for discrimination. This prompted Congress to enact the 1996 Solomon Amendment, under which campuses must grant access to the military or forfeit federal funds. The issue is now before the Supreme Court as Fair v Rumsfeld , Fair, standing for the Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, a consortium of 36 law schools and faculties trying to repeal the amendment. Few campuses can afford to defy the edict, but there have been vigorous protests against it.

At Santa Cruz, a campus with a history of student activism, things may even have got a little out of hand, suggests Bettina Aptheker, professor of feminist studies at the university and a seminal figure in the 1960s Berkeley student protest movement. According to Sonnenfeld, some 100 students "got inside" the job fair last April. Chanting protesters made a beeline for the military booths, from which recruiters beat a hasty retreat before being subjected to a verbal barracking. Aptheker says that student accounts suggest there were some "unfortunate aspects" to the confrontation. "The students stormed into the building, over-running whatever security there was. Basically the military recruiters felt their safety couldn't be guaranteed." But ultimately, she maintains, it was a "minor incident". "It was assertive direct action, but nothing would have happened to the military. No one would have beaten them up... It was chanting, not physical intimidation. These are kids."

As for the NYU law school demonstration against military recruiters on February 4, 2005, that it was even on the Pentagon's radar betrays a fundamental "lack of understanding" and homework, says Bess Kennedy, a third-year law student and member of the campus's gay rights group, OUTlaw, which organised the protest. For the past six years, OUTlaw has picketed military recruitment drives at the campus without incident, she says. "[Everything] is cleared in advance with [university authorities]. We have a plan for where we can stand. The administration provides breakfast. It's a very collaborative, co-operative exercise." As in previous years, students filing in for interviews last February were heckled with cries of "shame", "equal rights now" and "jag off" (a reference to judge advocate general, as US military lawyers are known) by placard-waving students taking up prearranged positions in a university building. Afterwards, there was an officially sanctioned "informational panel" on the Solomon Amendment, addressed by faculty experts and co-sponsored by the American Constitution Society and the American Civil Liberties Union - hardly a radical fringe meeting.

"Whoever [reported this] doesn't understand the purpose and history of this protest. This certainly wasn't something that warrants government surveillance," Kennedy says. "We were in no way protesting against military wars. This was a protest against discrimination and (about) the First Amendment rights of law schools [to free speech]."

John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, expresses similar sentiments. "This protest concerned matters of national polity," he says. The source of a second reference to a "possible violent demonstration" at NYU at about the same time remains unclear, but Beckman insists that the "only protest that happened in that period was the [one] about military recruitment". The affair raises more questions than it answers, he says. "It's difficult to know what this list means."

Aptheker recalls an oddly civilised run-in with her "own private FBI agent"

during her rabble-rousing student days. "He identified himself to me, told me he'd been assigned to me and followed me around." Things are unlikely to be so brazen today, but the spectre of government surveillance is perhaps more disquieting now because of the stealth afforded by technology and the Patriot Act, she says.

For Jonathan Cole, John Mitchell Mason professor of sociology at Columbia University, it is the "lack of information about the scope of this activity and whether or not the President is doing this on the basis of credible links to international terrorism" that is most troubling. "I don't believe we have any idea about the extent of surveillance at universities. It all takes place behind walls of secrecy," he says. "Even with the Patriot Act, if the Government comes in to review library records, e-mails or computer files, people are apparently under obligation not to (disclose) the inquiry."

One thing is certain, Cole says. "These kinds of incidents have an enormously chilling effect. It makes people think twice about participating in free dialogue on crucial issues of the day. If dissent can't take place on campuses in terms of organised, peaceful protest, [it's] a very problematic time for the values of universities to be maintained."

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