DOD to close intell reporting database

The Defense Department announced Aug. 21 that it would close an intelligence reporting database that had come under legal fire as a means of storing information about peaceful domestic critics of Bush administration policies.

The Threat and Local Observation Notice (Talon) database had become a lightning rod for criticism of military intelligence agencies’ monitoring of antiwar protestors. The decision to shut it down resonated with parallel litigation and debate about the legality 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 figure in current privacy debates.

The Pentagon said it would close Talon as of Sept. 17 and “maintain a record copy of the collected data in accordance with intelligence oversight requirements,” said a department press statement issued today.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which had sued DOD to gain access to Talon records under the Freedom of Information Act, 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 it 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 press release stated.

“It was high time for this [Talon] program to be shut down,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, in a press statement. “There should have been no place in a free, democratic society for the military to be accumulating secret data on peaceful demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights.”

“No one should think that we’re no longer looking at force protection and making sure that information that law enforcement people, security people get reported is moving up some way to be evaluated so that we take force protection precautions and evaluate if there’s a threat or not,” Keck said. “That’s still certainly happening.”

Talon received data partly from the Counterintelligence Field Activity, a shadowy and extensive domestic spying operation established at the behest of former Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld with the stated aim of helping protect military installations inside the country and abroad.

The department said 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 2007 report by the department’s inspector general found DOD 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.

“There is still too much that remains unanswered about the Pentagon’s surveillance activities in this country,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the 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.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other critics of the Vietnam War were subject to such federal monitoring which, when revealed, prompted legislation establishing the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Monitoring Act (FISA) court warrant process, among other civil liberties shields.

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

Some of those issues concern whether the intelligence community can exploit data gathered from calls between foreign countries that pass through switches in the United States. A secret FISA court ruling earlier this year on that matter has become the topic of heated, if muffled, debate among intelligence specialists and legislators.

In that debate and related litigation, opponents of secret federal eavesdropping have charged that the National Security Agency has overstepped its legal authority by using data mining to conduct traffic analysis of telephone calls between foreign countries.

Those data-mining methods rely partly on the incorporation of packet-switching technology into international telecommunications systems.

Wilson P. Dizard III writes for Government Computer News, an 1105 Government Information Group publication.


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