College officials are expressing concerns about a 400-page Department of Defense document that characterizes “threats” stemming from protests and demonstrations at institutions of higher education nationwide as either “credible or “not credible.” The document, which includes information on multiple protests at college campuses over the last year, has led to questions from officials at the monitored institutions over how the Pentagon has pursued its information.
The document, obtained by NBC News, was generated by the Defense Department’s Counterintelligence Field Activity agency, and it includes information on more than 1,500 “suspicious incidents” across the country over a recent 10-month period. In eight pages from the document that highlight all instances where protests or demonstrations were monitored during the time period -- which have been posted online by NBC News -- 10 of the 43 total instances listed have direct ties to activities at colleges and universities.
The institutions listed are New York University (twice), the State University of New York at Albany (twice), Southern Connecticut State University, the City College of New York, the University of California at Santa Cruz, “a NJ Area University,” the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin.
A majority of the institutions in the sample were monitored because of protests or demonstrations against military recruiting. In March 2005, for example, the department labeled a “protest on 2 Mar 05 against military recruiters in New York state at the University of Albany” as a “not credible” threat.
While most of the “threats” at institutions of higher education in the sample were listed as “not credible,” one, a “protest against military recruiters” at Santa Cruz in April 2005, was labeled “credible.”
Just how the department was able to cite such instances as “credible” or “not credible” has led some academics to question how the Pentagon gathers information on American campuses.
“It’s a matter of concern and puzzlement to NYU to find itself on such a list,” said John Beckman, vice president for public affairs at the university, who first learned his institution was on the list on Thursday.
Beckman noted that one of the monitored events appears to have centered on an NYU protest of the Solomon Amendment, the 1996 law that allows the Secretary of Defense to deny federal funding to institutions of higher learning if they prohibit or prevent military recruitment on campus.
“People at NYU are entitled to express their opinions on matters of national importance -- and to do so freely,” said Beckman.
A Pentagon spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as Department of Defense officials often do, addressed such concerns Thursday, saying, “there are intelligence analysts out there who make judgments based upon years of experience on whether or not they proceed with a threat as verified or non-verified.”
The spokesman said that the Defense Department has a database known as TALON, or the Threat and Local Observation Notice, which he described as “a collection of dots of information from around the world.”
“We have inputs into TALON that are received from concerned citizens, from gate guards … DoD personnel … and other federal and state law enforcement agencies,” he said. “You can infer from that answer that we have inputs -- but we’re not out there looking to put dots into the system.
“It’s not like DoD is sending out people to installations or meetings,” he said. “We can’t. We have no law enforcement authority beyond the gates of our own installation. We must work with the cognizant law enforcement authority in the area.”
The spokesman indicated that the department periodically reviews the information collected for TALON to determine what information should -- and should not -- “be there in the first place.”
“What we’re trying to do is prevent the next major attack by connecting the dots early,” he said.
Denice D. Denton, chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz, said Thursday that she is “greatly concerned about the Pentagon’s investigation of a UCSC campus protest of military recruiters last spring.”
Denton interprets the information from the document obtained by NBC as meaning that people at her university pose a credible threat to the Department of Defense.
“I have contacted our federal elected officials to express our concern,” Denton wrote in a campus e-mail on Wednesday. “I am asking them to investigate the reported secret monitoring on college campuses. Investigating our campus protest – one among many around the country – is a questionable use of military resources. It is especially disqui\eting that political dissent would be considered threatening.
“We would be abdicating our responsibility as educators if we fail to nurture a learning environment in which all points of view can be expressed and listened to with respect,” she continued. “While we do not tolerate violence, peaceful protests are one important way to help build a better society. Diversity of opinion, as with other forms of diversity and difference, is a hallmark of excellence that distinguishes UC Santa Cruz and other great institutions of higher education.”
Denton said Thursday that she’s received positive feedback from all of the offices of elected officials that her staff has contacted, including those of U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo, Zoe Lofgren, and Sam Farr and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, all Democrats. She plans to meet Tuesday with administrators on her campus regarding next steps to pursue with lawmakers.