Thursday, December 15, 2005

Those Dangerous Quakers

From the Sun-Sentinel:

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.


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?”

Oh, I don’t know…we might just make you come to one of our Vigil for Peace potluck covered-dish suppers. My three-can casserole can be pretty hefty. (“Three-can casserole” is made by taking the first three canned vegetables you find in the cupboard, dumping them in a casserole dish, covering it with enough Velveeta to make a single gelatinous mass, and cooking until it is completely congealed and burnt around the edges.)