Program raises spying concernSTATE NATIONAL GUARD UNIT SET UP TO DETER TERRORISM MONITORED ANTI-WAR RALLYBy Dion NissenbaumMercury News Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO - Three decades after aggressive military spying on Americans created a national furor, California's National Guard has quietly set up a special intelligence unit that has been given ``broad authority'' to monitor, analyze and distribute information on potential terrorist threats, the Mercury News has learned.
Known as the Information Synchronization, Knowledge Management and Intelligence Fusion program, the project is part of an expanding nationwide effort to better integrate military intelligence into global anti-terrorism initiatives.
Although Guard officials said the new unit would not collect information on American citizens, top National Guard officials have already been involved in tracking at least one recent Mother's Day anti-war rally organized by families of slain American soldiers, according to e-mails obtained by the Mercury News.
Past abuses recalled
Creation of California's intelligence unit is already raising concerns for civil libertarians who point to a string of abuses in the 1960s and 1970s, when the military collected information on more than 100,000 Americans, infiltrated church youth groups, posed as reporters to interview activists, monitored peaceful protests and even attended an elementary school Halloween party in search of a ``dissident.''
``The National Guard doesn't need to do this,'' said Christopher Pyle, a former Army intelligence officer who first exposed the military's domestic spying operations in 1970. ``Its job is not to investigate individuals, but to clear streets, protect facilities and help first responders.''
Top Guard officers said they have no intentions of breaking long-established rules barring the military from gathering information on Americans and that the evolving program is meant to help California and the nation thwart terrorist attacks.
``We do not do any type of surveillance or human intelligence or mixing with crowds,'' said Lt. Col. Stan Zezotarski. ``The National Guard does not operate in that way. We have always had a policy where we respect the rights of citizens.''
Generally, the National Guard is called upon to help the state deal with natural disasters and riots. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have put major strains on the military, which has started drawing more on Guard soldiers to fight overseas. And now Guard units are being integrated into anti-terrorism efforts in the United States.
The intelligence unit was quietly established last year by Maj. Gen. Thomas Eres, the National Guard leader who was forced by the Schwarzenegger administration to retire this month amid allegations that he failed to prove his shooting skills for a trip to Iraq, set up a questionable military flight for a Republican friend's political group and improperly used money meant to stem the flow of drugs for anti-terrorism programs.
Right before Eres retired, the Guard hired its first director for the intelligence unit who has ``broad authority'' and is expected to ``exercise a high degree of independent judgment and discretion,'' according to the job description obtained by the Mercury News.
``However, highly controversial or precedent-setting decisions, directives and policies are discussed with the appropriate senior leadership prior to implementation,'' the description states.
A one-stop shop
Col. Robert J. O'Neill, a veteran intelligence officer who started last week as director of the new program, said he envisions his team as being a one-stop shop for local, state and national law enforcement to share information. Intelligence officers will have access to sensitive national security information that they can analyze and potentially share with state and local law enforcement, he said.
``We are trying to integrate into their systems and bring them information that they don't have,'' O'Neill said.
He said his unit would not cross any legal lines into spying on Americans. But the Guard's role in monitoring at least one demonstration has already alarmed civil libertarians.
Last month, a group of anti-war activists, including the parents of American soldiers killed in Iraq, held a small Mother's Day rally at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial near the California Capitol to call for the return of all National Guard troops by Labor Day.
Three days before the rally, as a courtesy to the military, an aide in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's press office alerted the Guard to the event, according to e-mails obtained by the Mercury News.
The information was passed up the chain of command directly to Eres and other top Guard officials including Col. Jeff Davis, who oversees O'Neill's operation.
E-mail reveals actions
``Sir,'' Guard chief of staff Col. John Moorman wrote in the e-mail to Eres that was copied to Davis and other top commanders. ``Information you wanted on Sunday's demonstration at the Capitol.''
In response, Davis indicated that Guard intelligence officers were tracking the rally.
``Thanks,'' Davis wrote. ``Forwarding same to our Intell. folks who continue to monitor.''
That rainy Sunday, the protest organized by Gold Star Families for Peace, Raging Grannies and CodePink drew about three dozen supporters.
Guard spokesman Zezotarski said the monitoring did not involve anything more than keeping tabs on the protest through the media and that no one went to observe the demonstration.
But he said the military would be ``negligent'' in not tracking such anti-war rallies in the event that they disintegrate into a riot that could prompt the governor to call out troops.
``It's nothing subversive,'' Zezotarski said. ``Because who knows who could infiltrate that type of group and try to stir something up? After all, we live in the age of terrorism, so who knows?''
Civil libertarians scoffed at such defenses.
``That's ludicrous,'' said Joseph Onek, a former Carter and Clinton administration official who now heads the Liberty and Security Initiative for the Constitution Project at Georgetown University. ``That's not what the American people expect its military to be doing.''
Pyle, the Army officer who exposed the abuses in the 1970s and is now a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, said that the evolving intelligence programs are susceptible to dangerous ``mission creep'' that led to overaggressive tactics during the Vietnam War.
Since the Civil War, the United States has tried to create firm barriers preventing the military from getting involved in domestic issues. The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act prevents the U.S. military from taking part in domestic law enforcement.
Military role expands
The Army got involved with collecting intelligence on Americans in the 1960s when it was called in to deal with civil rights protests and riots. Its role expanded as the decade wore on and the anti-Vietnam War movement grew more confrontational.
At the time, according to congressional records, the military collected files on more than 100,000 Americans and embraced aggressive tactics to try to undermine anti-war groups, including attending a Halloween party for kids and infiltrating church youth groups.
In response, Congress and the military set up new rules to strictly regulate military spying in the United States.
But the Sept. 11 attacks raised concerns that the controls had gone too far. Since then, the FBI and military have been expanding their intelligence operations.
The notion of creating intelligence ``fusion centers'' is slowly gaining momentum. Massachusetts is setting one up, but it is housed in the state police headquarters, not its National Guard.
Currently, federal law allows the U.S. military to gather information on Americans under exceptionally tight restrictions. The intelligence must be essential to their mission, publicly available or related to national security issues.
The Pentagon has created a new operation in Colorado known as the Northern Command to help protect the nation from terrorist attacks. Its leader, Gen. Ralph Eberhart, raised some concerns among civil libertarians last year after telling a National Guard group that ``we can't let culture and the way we've always done it stand in the way'' of gathering intelligence.
Last year, the U.S. military came under fire after it was reported that two Army lawyers in civilian clothes attended a forum on sexism in Islam and later demanded a roster of those in attendance, along with a videotape of the conference, after being questioned by three Middle Eastern men during the event.
Army officials said the attorneys had ``exceeded their authority'' and ordered a refresher course for agents.