Kessler dismissed "paranoid conspiracy theories" that military recently spied on anti-war groups; missed NBC report on leaked Pentagon database

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On Fox News' Special Report, author Ronald Kessler dismissed as "paranoid conspiracy theories" any suggestion that "the government wants to spy on us" or "go after anti-war protesters." However, according to a NBC Nightly News report, U.S. military intelligence agents are "collecting information on American peace activists and monitoring protests against the Iraq war."

On the December 16 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, author Ronald Kessler discounted as "paranoid conspiracy theories" any suggestion that "the government wants to spy on us" or "go after anti-war protesters," falsely claming that "the fact is there's never been one instance of that found." But a December 13 NBC Nightly News report suggests such theories are far from "paranoid." According to NBC, which referred to a "secret" Pentagon database, military intelligence agents are "collecting information on American peace activists and monitoring protests against the Iraq war."

Kessler is the author of A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush (Sentinel, 2004), described on Kessler's personal website as presenting "the truth about the man and his administration" and "contrast[ing] the nasty, imperious way previous White House occupants Bill and Hillary Clinton treated maids and butlers, Secret Service agents, and military aides with the respectful way George and Laura Bush treat them."

Also on Special Report, as part of his argument that leaking U.S. surveillance activities can harm national security, Kessler falsely claimed that The Washington Post "blew" an operation to monitor Osama bin Laden's satellite phone. In fact, it was The Washington Times -- not the Post -- that reported on August 21, 1998, that bin Laden "keeps in touch with the world via computers and satellite phones and has given occasional interviews to international news organizations, including Time magazine and CNN News." A December 21 Times article denied the paper had revealed any secret information in the report, claiming that "the September 11 commission had falsely singled out" the paper "for damaging an intelligence operation by disclosing in 1998 that Osama bin Laden used a satellite phone, even though his means of communication had been widely reported beforehand, including by CNN, CBS and Time."

The database, according to the report by NBC senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers, contains "1,500 suspicious incidents across the country over a 10-month period," including a gathering at a Quaker meeting house in Lake Worth, Florida, where activists planned "how to protest military recruiting at local high schools." The database lists the meeting as a "threat." The report stated that "the database includes four dozen anti-war meetings or protests. ... Some, but not all the protests, are aimed at military recruiting. A briefing document, also stamped 'secret,' concludes, 'We have noted increased communication between protest groups using the Internet,' but not a 'significant connection' between incidents, such as 'reoccurring instigators' or 'vehicle descriptions.'" NBC News military analyst William M. Arkin, who served in the 1970s as an Army intelligence analyst under the U.S. Commander in Berlin, commented that "[i]t means that they're actually collecting information about who's at those protests, the descriptions of vehicles at those protests." Former Army intelligence official Christopher Pyle -- who, the report noted, "blew the whistle on the Pentagon for monitoring and infiltrating anti-war and civil rights protests" during the Vietnam War -- agreed, characterizing the apparent operation as "the J. Edgar Hoover Memorial Vacuum Cleaner."

In contrast to Fox guest Kessler, retired Marine Lt. Col Bert Tussing, director of homeland defense and security issues at the U.S. Army War College, told NBC that "there is very little that could justify the collection of domestic intelligence by the United States military. If we start going down this slippery slope, it would be too easy to go back to a place we never want to see again."

A December 14 NBC follow-up report by Myers noted that the database records the Army's 902nd Military Intelligence Group as the source of some reports, including those on "a weekly protest at an Atlanta recruiting station" and "a protest at the University of California at Santa Cruz." However, that report also stated that "[t]he Pentagon still refuses to say how it's collecting this information, whether the military itself is spying on protest groups or asking local law enforcement to do surveillance and report back."

From the December 16 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, guest-hosted by Fox News chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle:

KESSLER: Of course, you know, the main point here is we are living in a different world. We're talking about terrorists who don't care if they're killed, who are trying very hard to get a nuclear device, to get biological -- which could kill millions of people. And if you get one little snippet of information before that happens, that may be enough to stop the plot. And let's say the Israelis tell us that they have bin Laden's phone -- and by the way, we did have bin Laden's satellite phone until The Washington Post blew that in 1998, and so he stopped using that phone.

[...]

ANGLE: Now, one former intelligence agent told me today, he said, look, NSA and other people in the intelligence community are not looking to spy on Americans. They're looking to stop bad things from happening. What protections are there here if you accidentally pick up a conversation from an American who is not connected to Al Qaeda?

KESSLER: Well, there isn't, you know, but that's the price we have to pay for our freedom, I think. You know, certainly if they find that there's no connection to terrorism, they will get off. The fact is there have not been any abuses found since J. Edgar Hoover's time. So, we're talking about all these paranoid conspiracy theories about how the government wants to spy on us and they want to go after anti-war protesters, but the fact is there's never been one instance of that found. And we are talking about our survival. We're talking about a nuclear device that could go off in New York and just wipe out that whole city.

ANGLE: Ron Kessler, thanks very much.

From the December 13 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News, with anchor Brian Williams:

WILLIAMS: NBC News "In Depth" tonight: Is the Pentagon really spying on anti-war groups in the U.S.? Ever since 9-11, the Department of Defense has been authorized to expand its intelligence collection inside this country. Now, NBC News has obtained a secret Pentagon database that indicates the U.S. military is collecting information on American peace activists and monitoring protests against the Iraq war, to a degree that is drawing some sharp criticism tonight. NBC News senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers tonight with our exclusive report.

MYERS: A year ago, in Lake Worth, Florida, at this Quaker meeting house --

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi, everybody. Welcome to --

MYERS: -- a small group of activists met to plan how to protest military recruiting at local high schools. What they didn't know was that their meeting had come to the attention of the U.S. military. This 400-page secret Defense Department document obtained by NBC News lists the Lake Worth meeting as a "threat," one of 1,500 suspicious incidents across the country over a 10-month period. We showed the document to the group.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The incident type? "Threat."

WOMAN #1: Wow!

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Unbelievable.

EVY GRACHOW (group member): Unbelievable.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is incredible.

GRACHOW: This peaceful, educationally oriented group being a threat is incredible.

MYERS: This document is the first inside look at how the Pentagon has stepped up intelligence collection in this country since 9-11, even monitoring peaceful protests against the Iraq war.

ARKIN: Americans should be concerned that the military, in fact, has reached too far.

MYERS: NBC News military analyst Bill Arkin says the Pentagon now collects domestic intelligence that goes beyond legitimate concerns about terrorism or protecting U.S. military installations. For example, the database includes four dozen anti-war meetings or protests, including this one in Hollywood. Some, but not all the protests, are aimed at military recruiting. A briefing document, also stamped "secret," concludes, "We have noted increased communication between protest groups using the Internet," but not a "significant connection" between incidents, such as "reoccurring instigators" or "vehicle descriptions."

ARKIN: It means that they're actually collecting information about who's at those protests, the descriptions of vehicles at those protests.

MYERS: All this is disturbing, but familiar, to Christopher Pyle, a former Army intelligence officer.

PYLE: Some people never learn.

MYERS: During the Vietnam War, Pyle blew the whistle on the Pentagon for monitoring and infiltrating anti-war and civil rights protests. The public was outraged. So the federal government put strict limits on military spying inside the U.S. Pyle says this database suggests the military may be doing it again.

PYLE: This is the J. Edgar Hoover Memorial Vacuum Cleaner. They're collecting everything.

MYERS: The Pentagon declined repeated requests for an interview. A spokesman said that "all domestic intelligence information" is "properly collected" and involves "protection of Defense Department installations, interests and personnel." But a professor at the U.S. Army War College sees dangerous territory.

TUSSING: If we start going down this slippery slope, it would be too easy to go back to -- to a place we never want to see again.

MYERS: The Pentagon would not comment on how it obtained information on the Lake Worth meeting or why it considers a dozen or so peace activists a threat. Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.

From the December 14 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News:

WILLIAMS: And we have a follow-up tonight on an NBC News investigation. Last night on this broadcast, we told you about a secret Pentagon database that shows the U.S. military may be spying on anti-war groups in this country and monitoring protests against the Iraq war. Tonight, the Pentagon has responded to our story, and there is more sharp reaction to the new revelations. Here with that, NBC News senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers.

MYERS: Today some members of this Florida anti-war group demanded that the Pentagon turn over all information collected about their group. And a Florida senator wrote Defense Secretary Rumsfeld asking how this peaceful group could be listed as a threat in this previously secret Pentagon database.

SEN. BILL NELSON (D-FL): When the Pentagon starts going into a Quaker meeting house in Florida, then it's a question of invasion of privacy.

MYERS: This morning, a Pentagon spokesman defended the collection of domestic intelligence. The database lists 1,500 "suspicious" incidents over a 10-month period. A DOD spokesman said the military has "a legitimate interest in protecting its installations and people, and to the extent that they use information collected by law enforcement agencies to do that, that's appropriate." Some incidents in the database do refer to FBI reports, but information on a weekly protest at an Atlanta recruiting station comes not from law enforcement but from the Army's 902nd Military Intelligence Group. So does a report on a protest at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

ARKIN: This document, it's a clue that shows the level of surveillance, the level of domestic surveillance that the U.S. military is now involved in.

MYERS: The Pentagon still refuses to say how it's collecting this information, whether the military itself is spying on protest groups or asking local law enforcement to do surveillance and report back. Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Domestic Spying
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