It is still technically illegal for the U.S. military to conduct police operations on domestic soil, with one notable exception: providing protection for military personnel and property. The Defense Department grabbed ahold of that loophole in 2002, and now the world's most powerful armed forces are secretly tracking peaceful anti-war protesters to an extent not seen since the Nixon administration.
In mid-December, NBC News obtained a 400-page Pentagon document showing how the three-year-old Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) was conducting surveillance and collecting data on protesters nowhere near military facilities, such as an anti-recruitment Quaker group meeting in Lake Worth, Florida, and an anti-war demonstration at the decidedly nonmilitary intersection of Hollywood and Vine. More than 1,500 separate such "suspicious incidents" were tracked during a recent 10-month period.
In follow-up reporting, The Washington Post revealed that CIFA—which receives zero congressional oversight—has control over 4,000 or so military investigators, compared to the roughly 5,000 FBI agents tasked with combating terrorism. So the military is not only getting into domestic law enforcement; it's on the verge of outmuscling the agency officially in charge of the job.
CIFA maintains a database, established in the wake of 9/11 by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, with the lovely acronym of TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice). In its first year of operation, NBC News reported, TALON generated 5,000 entries on domestic activities. According to laws passed in the wake of Nixon-era abuses, any such database entries on Americans have to be purged within 90 days if no wrongdoing is found.
After NBC's revelations, the Pentagon promised an inquiry into the legalities of TALON. That same week, however, the media began chasing down another surveillance controversy—the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping on Americans—so the military investigation of domestic protesters fell out of the newspapers.
According to Washington Post military analyst William Arkin, that's a shame. "The military is not inadvertently keeping information on U.S. persons," Arkin wrote on his Early Warning weblog. "It is violating the law." What's worse, he adds, "it even wants to do it more."