Spying on Gay Groups Bared

Docs show government surveillance of student groups opposed to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

As the Bush administration was scrambling to deal with the fallout from a New York Times report last Thursday evening that it is engaged in wiretapping of American residents talking to others outside the country—in seeming contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Security Act of 1978—an NBC News report over the weekend documented a more widespread pattern of surveillance on organizations within the United States.

The groups identified as being under FBI or military scrutiny include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Greenpeace, the Catholic Workers—and at least four student groups protesting the U.S. military’s anti-gay Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and the presence of Pentagon recruiters on their university campuses.

The gay and anti-war university groups named so far as targets of government surveillance are OUTLaw, the gay legal group at the New York University Law School in Manhattan, and organizations from the State University of New York at Albany, William Patterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

An April event held by Students Against War at Santa Cruz targeting military recruiters was the only action staged by any of the four groups that was cited in government documents as posing “a credible threat” for terrorism. According to Josh Sonnenfeld, a Students Against War member, the group focuses widely on issues related to the military, including its discrimination against gay and lesbian service members, but on broader social and political concerns as well. He said that the group, which includes many queer students but is not specifically a gay group, turned out about 300 demonstrators in April who encircled the campus recruiting tables, started an anti-military teach-in, effectively blocking others students from talking to the Pentagon representatives. Those recruiters eventually left in frustration.

According to NBC News, information on that demonstration was collected not by the FBI, but rather by the Army’s 902nd military intelligence group, which also monitored ongoing protests at a recruiting facility in Atlanta.

Sonnenfeld, a third year undergraduate at Santa Cruz, said his group staged a subsequent rally against military recruiters on campus in October, which included two dozen students, some queer, some not, inside, engaged in a same-sex kiss-in. He said the university deployed massive security, and barred cameras and signs from the facility, and that as a result the protesters were backed up by a number of monitors and legal observers inside, as well as roughly 200 additional students outside.

News of the October kiss-in led a number of media outlets to conflate the two Santa Cruz protests and report that the kiss-in was the event viewed as a “credible threat” in military documents. Sonnenfeld noted that thus far NBC has released only eight of 400 pages it has in its possession. He speculated that information on government surveillance of the kiss-in might be elsewhere in those 400 pages, or still held secretly by the government.

Bess Kennedy, a third-year NYU law student originally from California, was responsible for organizing OUTLaw’s fall and spring recruitment protests during the 2004-05 academic year, and she describes a far more harmonious relationship between protesters and university administrators than is the case in Santa Cruz. It was her second protest, in February, where FBI surveillance agents were on hand.

“I am pretty shocked and appalled,” Kennedy told Gay City News. “In some ways, I am little flattered that they think our activities would warrant surveillance, but it is completely ludicrous and incredibly disturbing.”

She explained that for years, gay students, faculty, and their allies have protested the arrival of military recruiters, and the actions have uniformly been peaceful, and carried out with the full cooperation of the university administration. The event in February lasted for three hours, and drew as many as 60 protesters, in part because NYU was playing host that day to an inter-university conference. OUTLaw, Kennedy said, has about 15 to 20 active students, and a total membership of roughly 40.

NYU law school students are completing exams this week, and Kennedy explained that as a result OUTLaw members had not been able to convene to consider any response to the reports. She said that the group had been contacted by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a Washington-based advocacy group for gay and lesbian soldiers, which is seeking to learn what university organizations wish to sign on to its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all documents related to government surveillance of groups protesting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Steve Ralls, an SLDN spokesman, said that the federal government will have 90 days to respond to its FOIA request once it is filed, but acknowledged that the initial U.S. reply could simply be a statement indicating that a clarification is required of what information is being sought. Asked whether he thought the government might plead national security concerns in refusing to divulge further information, Ralls said, “We’ve seen under the Bush administration especially that the government has pushed back hard on the issue of material being classified when we’ve made FOIA requests.”

Sonnenfeld said he has discussed the FOIA issue with SLDN, but that for the time being Students Against War in Santa Cruz is working with the American Civil Liberties Union on a separate filing.

Professor Sylvia Law teaches at the NYU Law School and has been active not only in helping organize protests at that university, but has also been a leader in waging the legal battle against the Solomon Amendment that requires that law schools allow campus access to military recruiters as a condition of federal funding for the entire institution of which they are part. A group of universities, law schools, professors, and students have challenged that provision arguing that the schools’ nondiscrimination policies barring such recruiters are an essential component of their First Amendment expressive rights. The issue made its way earlier this month to the U.S. Supreme Court for oral arguments, but observers have suggested that the gay advocates may not have prevailed.

On the question of whether she was personally troubled by the fact that her own activities at NYU might be under FBI scrutiny, Law seem relatively unfazed.

“I’m not specifically concerned,” she said of reports that agents were on campus last February. “I am concerned about the larger picture.”

As an analogy, Law talked about a letter she received from the FBI following what she said was a “perfectly legal” trip to Cuba several years ago, demanding that she account for every minute of her time there. After consulting with the Center for Constitutional Law, she simply sent the government a letter directing it to speak to her attorney. Law heard nothing again about Cuba.

“But many of them on the trip were probably freaked out about [receiving] an FBI 20-page letter,” she said.

“All of this creates a chilling effect,” Law said. “It says to people, don’t get involved in anything that the Bush administration would possibly find a challenge to them.”

“Many of my students who have not yet passed their character test for the bar worry that some of their demos around the [Republican National Convention] were targeted. Pictures were taken, arrests made,” she continued. “I say, ‘Sue me. I’d love to fight the constitutional issue.’ But it happens to students who are really smart and progressive who say, ‘But I just took on 120,000 dollars in debt and cannot afford to not get into the bar.’”

Aaron Belkin, a political science professor at UC-Santa Barbara and director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, spoke to the wastefulness of such surveillance, which parallels the willful squandering of resources in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy itself.

“When there are not enough Arab linguists, not enough boots on the ground in Iraq, not enough money for State Department diplomatic initiatives, and we are waging a global war on terror, to allocate resources to spy on peaceful groups and on grandmothers really raises questions,” Belkin said. “It’s a very sad story, maybe more sad than scary.”

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