Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Defense Department Sees Protests as Terrorism

Oakland Tribune staff

Antiterrorism training materials used by the Department of Defense teach that public protests should be regarded as "low-level terrorism," according to a letter of complaint sent to the department by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

"Teaching employees that dissent on issues of public concern is something to be feared, rather than encouraged, is a dangerously counterproductive use of scarce security resources, making us less safe as a democracy," Northern California ACLU staff attorney Ann Brick and ACLU Washington national security policy counsel Michael German wrote in the letter to Gail McGinn, acting undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness.

"DOD employees cannot accomplish their mission of protecting our nation and its values unless they understand that those values encompass the right to criticize our government through protest activities," they wrote. "It is imperative that they are taught the difference between political, religious or social activism and terrorism."

Among the multiple-choice questions included in its Level 1 Antiterrorism Awareness training course — an annual training requirement for all DOD personnel that is fulfilled through Web-based instruction — the department asks the following: "Which of the following is an example of low-level terrorist activity?" To answer correctly, the examinee must select "protests."

The ACLU wants that changed immediately, and it wants corrective information sent to all Department of Defense employees who received the training.

The ACLU letter notes that this is particularly disturbing in light of the long-term pattern of government treating lawful dissent as terrorism. In the Bay Area, my colleagues and I reported exactly this in 2003, as the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center fed local police agencies information on protests, with catastrophic results. Two years after that, it was the California National Guard.

I guess I'm surprised not only that the government hasn't yet learned its lesson about equating the exercise of our cherished constitutional rights with terrorism, but also that it's so incredibly obvious in doing so.

— Josh Richman

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