Students whose antiwar protests were recorded by the US military are using a legal manoeuvre to dig into Pentagon files that resulted from the spying.
NBC News has reported that students who protested against military recruiting at the University of California campuses in Berkeley and Santa Cruz in 2004 may have been spied on and reported as "threats" even though US law generally bars any military domestic surveillance.
Now the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of several student groups, has used the law to seek the release of any Defence Department reports about them. "Students should be able to freely express themselves on campus without fear of ending up in a military database," said Mark Schlosberg, police practices policy director for the ACLU's Northern California chapter.
The national ACLU and civil liberties organisations in other states are also trying to find out if protesters were spied on and if the Pentagon shared the information with other government agencies.
"The Pentagon's monitoring of antiwar protesters is yet another example of a government agency using its powers to spy on law-abiding Americans who criticise US policies," said Ben Wisner, an attorney with the national ACLU.
"The dissenting voices of college students are no threat to the nation or the Department of Defence," complained the Daily Bruin , the newspaper at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Universities have always been one of this country's primary means of generating intellectual debate and serving as a haven for public displays of dissent through protest and other means of activism."
The Pentagon would not comment formally on the row, but officials have said off the record that some of the data collected should not have been kept on file.
Several Congressmen have written to the Secretary of Defence to raise the issue of the Pentagon's Talon database, which gathers unverified information to identify signs of terrorist activity.
Last month, the ACLU also filed a suit on behalf of academics and others over intercepts of telephone and internet communications. Larry Diamond, a political scientist at Stanford University who is a party to the ACLU's action, said legitimate contacts between academics and activists and journalists abroad were threatened.