ACLU Demands Investigation of U.S. Military Surveillance of Peaceful Protesters in Rhode Island

December 16, 2005 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island charged today that U.S. military officials have illegally engaged in monitoring peaceful protest activities of local anti-war demonstrators, and called for an immediate investigation.

“The monitoring of peaceful protest activity by our government must stop,” said ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown. “It is deplorable to see our government spending its scarce resources by keeping tabs on political protest.”

On Wednesday, NBC News reported on a secret Department of Defense database that includes information on dozens of anti-war meetings and protests across the country over a ten-month period. A handful of the 1,500 “suspicious incidents” that are listed in the 400-page document obtained by NBC were posted on its Web site yesterday, and one of the items in the database refers to “Protesting and Picketing Planned at a Rhode Island National Guard Recruitment Station” in Providence on December 13, 2004. The memo lists the incident as a “threat” and its disposition is marked as “open/unresolved.” The document further indicates that the military learned of the event three days earlier, but it does not specify from whom the information was obtained. The peaceful anti-war protest that day by the Community Coalition for Peace consisted of a few dozen peace activists.

The ACLU said it would call on the state’s Congressional delegation to seek an investigation of the matter.

“Over 30 years ago, the public learned of widespread political surveillance of anti-Vietnam War protesters by the U.S. military,” Brown said. “This latest revelation is extremely troubling, because it indicates that the military has learned nothing from the past.”

It is unknown how many other references to political protests in Rhode Island are contained in the full database, or whether local law enforcement has been involved in forwarding information about political activity to the military. While it would not directly affect spying by federal government agencies, the ACLU’s Brown said this latest revelation confirmed the need for passage of state legislation restricting local police from collecting or maintaining information about the political, religious or social views, associations or activities of individuals. Such a bill was introduced in the General Assembly earlier this year, but died in committee.

“The sooner the government learns that the monitoring of First Amendment activity is none of its business, the safer we will be from true threats to our country,” added Brown.

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