Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense and a leader of a group of Pentagon officials who refer to themselves as “the Cabal,” has established a surveillance database known as Talon to collect “raw, nonvalidated” reports of “anomalous activities” filed “by concerned citizens and military members regarding suspicious incidents.” In a May 2 memo to top Pentagon officials, Wolfowitz instructed the heads of military departments and agencies to begin producing Talon reports immediately and forward them to the department’s Counterintelligence Field Activity office, which in turn will load those reports into a Defense Intelligence Agency and Joint Intelligence Task Force Combating Terrorism database. The precursor of Talon is the Air Force’s Eagle Eyes, a program run out of the Office of Special Investigations, which, according to the OSI Web site, “enlists the eyes and ears of Air Force members and citizens in the war on terror.”Talon is also disturbingly similar to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s ill-fated Operation TIPS, a program to get patriotic citizens who have regular contact with the public involved in reporting suspicious activities to the Justice Department.“It sounds like it could be very much like TIPS,” says Lee Tien, the staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The fundamental idea of TIPS is that everyone ends up reporting suspicious activities, but with a lack of safeguards. As anyone who has worked in the courts knows, eyewitness reporting is extremely unreliable. So there is a data quality problem. How good is the data you are relying on? And what about people who want to abuse the system? In a nation of snitches it is very easy for people to say discrediting things about others, and if there is no verification, you can ruin someone’s reputation or harm their privacy by saying things that are untrue or, perhaps more subtly, things that are ambiguous. That can have major consequences on someone’s life, and everyone should be concerned about that kind of thing happening. I think it is very dangerous.”
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.