Defense Department calls South Florida peace groups "threats"
Anti-war activists under watch
By Robert Nolin and Sean Gardiner
December 15 2005
South Florida's anti-war activists are few in number. Many are retirees, veterans or students. They carry puppets, wave placards or hand out pamphlets to potential military recruits.
But these activities have been labeled a "threat" by the Defense Department. Local peace-mongers, like many around the country, have come under surveillance by the Pentagon.
"I'm disabled, I'm 59 and if I'm a credible threat to the government of the United States, then either the government is terribly paranoid or terribly weak," said Rich Hersh of Boca Raton, whose group, the Truth Project, has come under federal scrutiny.
The military's domestic surveillance was disclosed this week in a report on NBC Nightly News, which obtained a 400-page Department of Defense document outlining the surveillance of peace groups. Acting on a complaint from the Truth Project, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson posted a letter Wednesday to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, demanding an accounting.
"I am very concerned that the military's apparent expansion of domestic intelligence gathering could lead to unprecedented invasions of privacy of lawful citizens simply for exercising their right of free speech," the Democratic senator wrote, citing the NBC report as well as "other major media services" as the source for his concern.
The Defense Department's chief spokesman, Gregory Hicks, initially promised to make a statement. By Wednesday night, however, none had been issued.
Word of the military surveillance spread quickly Wednesday among the area's various anti-war groups.
"It's a major buzz," said Ray Del Papa of Fort Lauderdale, with the Broward Anti-War Coalition. South Florida's dedicated peace activists, who arguably number fewer than 500, greeted the news with dismay, anger and even pride. No one was surprised.
"We suspected for a long time that the group was being watched, but we don't really care. We have nothing to hide," said Hersh, whose group counts about eight members, most over 50 and many who are Quakers.
"I always felt this was going to happen," said Del Papa, 52. "You have paranoid leadership, and they're afraid of everything."
Del Papa said his group, which for two years has organized monthly, then weekly, protests outside the federal courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale, has attracted government agents to meetings in private homes. Though the agents were disguised as anarchists, Del Papa said their footwear gave them away: Nike or Reebok running shoes, which to anarchists represent corporate greed.
"No anarchist is going to wear Nikes or Reeboks to a protest," Del Papa said.
The Truth Project, which gathers in the Quaker Meeting House in Lake Worth, engages in "counter-recruiting" efforts at Palm Beach County high schools. With the permission of school officials, members distribute materials to students to counteract claims by military recruiters.
"We're not in there to disturb the school or anything like that," Hersh said. "To see us as a threat is kind of ludicrous."
Michael Foley, associate professor of politics at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said the USA Patriot Act, passed by Congress shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, made it possible for the military to engage in domestic surveillance. The practice hearkens to the 1960s and 1970s, when the government monitored many peaceful protest groups.
Foley, who specializes in internal security and politics, said spying on groups like the Truth Project can be an inefficient use of government time and money. "There's a lot of retirees, a lot of older people who are involved in protesting," he said. "There's not much alarming here. What do you expect Quakers to do?"
Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco said government surveillance could -- intentionally or otherwise -- deter people from expressing their views. "It's intimidating to those who want to exercise their constitutional rights," said Zunes, a professor of politics and expert on nonviolent social movements.
The Defense Department monitored a protest last April during the Air & Sea Show in Fort Lauderdale, the NBC report said, but labeled the 15 or so protesters as a "US group exercising constitutional rights."
One of that rally's organizers, Peter Ackerman, a Fort Lauderdale Quaker, was saddened to learn of the surveillance. "We become the enemy, we become the suspicious, we become the guilty," he said. "This is a good indication that the government cannot be trusted with the powers that the Patriot Act grants."
Domestic surveillance is conducted by federal, state and local authorities, said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "We're going to have to fight this at all levels," he said.
Marie Zwicker of Lake Worth, a member of the Truth Project, said her group will continue to invite the public to their meetings, despite the chance of government surveillance. "I guess they view us as a credible threat because we tell the truth," she said.
Robert Nolin can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4525.
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