Students React to Spy Charge

January 2nd, 2006 - by admin

Becky Bartindale / Mercury News – 2006-01-02 23:36:36

(December 30, 2005) — Home for college winter break in Daly City, Jennifer Low was cruising the MSNBC Web page on her laptop when she saw a story that caught her eye: “Is the Pentagon spying on Americans?” the headline asked.

Moments later it dawned on Low, 20, a third-year student at the University of California-Santa Cruz, that she had just made national news — as part of a student anti-war group whose spring protest against military recruiters at UCSC reportedly was ranked as a “credible threat” by the Pentagon.

Low and others who are part of the UCSC Students Against the War say they are not terribly surprised about being spied on. They’ve long suspected surveillance by undercover campus police. The university admits to videotaping some demonstrations to create an accurate record of events, but denies taking part in any surreptitious activity.

Now the students have joined forces with the ACLU of Northern California, which last week demanded state Attorney General Bill Lockyer disclose intelligence-gathering activities by state and local law enforcement agencies. Documents obtained by the ACLU’s national office reveal the FBI gathering information on a range of activities including a conference at Stanford University in 2002.

The students also hope to obtain a 400-page Defense Department document listing 1,500 “suspicious incidents” that occurred during 10 months across the country. NBC Nightly News disclosed that document in mid-December, and MSNBC posted an excerpt of the incidents, including Students Against the War’s spring protest.

Chancellor reacts

On Wednesday, UCSC Chancellor Denice Denton sent a campus e-mail saying the university was calling on Bay Area congressional representatives to investigate “the Pentagon’s investigation” of military recruiting protests at UCSC and other college campuses.

The April 5 demonstration at UCSC temporarily disrupted a career fair and ended with Army, Navy and Marine Corps recruiters leaving campus after chanting students pushed their way in and surrounded the recruiters’ tables. About 300 students took part in the demonstration.

It was an exciting spring for the student anti-war group, which had only formed a few months before. It pulled off a series of well-attended campus protests, including supporting service workers by blocking entrances to campus during a one-day strike.

Josh Sonnenfeld, a third-year student who is a member of the group and grew up in Santa Cruz, said he and other students began suspecting in the spring that campus police were watching them.

“They’ve been spying on us ever since our organization was formed,” Sonnenfeld said. “One undercover campus police officer dressed up as a student and videotaped students” at demonstrations in the spring. “He has pushed a couple of students around before.”

Campus police “absolutely did not” spy on students “and it’s unfortunate that is the perception,” said UCSC campus spokeswoman Elizabeth Irwin. University police did not give federal officials any information about the April 5 recruitment protest, she said, and weren’t asked for any.

In some instances, if a protest could result in arrests or disciplinary action, it might be videotaped to create an accurate record, Irwin said, but the taping is not done covertly and is strictly for internal use. Police officers who are not in uniform could be present, perhaps even videotaping, she added, “but they are not pretending to be students.”

University officials say they have no idea how the spring recruitment protest wound up being listed in the allegedly secret Defense Department document as a “credible threat.” One possibility, Irwin said, is that armed services representatives who were targets of the protest may have reported it.

Many of the 43 “suspicious events” listed in the excerpt posted by MSNBC involved protests against military recruiting, including a planning meeting at a Quaker Meeting House in Florida and at college campuses in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Wisconsin and at UC-Berkeley. About three-quarters were classified as “not credible.”

A Defense Department spokesman, who would not agree to be quoted by name, said he could not confirm the authenticity of the NBC News document. He said the government maintains a database, called Talon, that contains information about possible security threats as relayed by concerned citizens, Department of Defense personnel, various federal agencies, and state and local law enforcement.

There are no Pentagon directives to monitor college anti-war or military recruiting protests, he said. If something is deemed a possible credible threat by intelligence analysts, he said, the department works with appropriate law enforcement agencies because it has no authority beyond the gates of its own installations.

Low, who is in her third year majoring in community studies and politics, noted her working-class family is struggling to pay for her education.

“They think this is completely ridiculous,” she said. As taxpayers, “we really have to question what our money is being spent on. Are UCSC students and Quakers terrorists?”

Symbolic move

Sonnenfeld said it’s not realistic to expect the campus to ban military recruiting entirely because it would face loss of federal funds. And in fact, he said, for the career fair held this fall, the university agreed to several student suggestions, including segregating military recruiters to a separate room.

“It’s a small move but it is symbolic,” Sonnenfeld said. But the university could do more, he added.

When news of the Pentagon “spying” document broke this month, it only confirmed some students’ suspicions.

“A lot of us came of age after 9/11 and we know the U.S. military has been involved in surveillance and repression since its founding,” Sonnenfeld said. “This isn’t exactly news.”

Low said she was surprised, but concluded the news was only for the good.

“It’s a good way to help other Americans realize we have to question what our leaders are doing,” she said. “That’s what democracy is.”

Contact Becky Bartindale at or (408) 920-5459.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.