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By Michael German, ACLU Policy Counsel on National Security, Immigration and Privacy

It might seem hard to believe, but it is true. The Department of Defense (DOD) considers protests an example of "low-level terrorism," at least according to an exam DOD employees were required to take this year. You would have thought that the Pentagon learned its lesson after its nationwide surveillance program targeting peace activists, called TALON, was exposed in 2005 and roundly condemned. The program and the secretive Pentagon unit that ran it, the Counterintelligence Field Activity Agency (CIFA), were both shuttered in 2007. Apparently it is easier to kill a program than change an attitude.

According to a whistleblower that came to the ACLU, a multiple choice question on the 2009 DOD Anti-terrorism Awareness training exam asked which of the following was an example of low-level terrorism:

  • Attacking the Pentagon
  • Improvised Explosive Devices (IED)
  • Hate crimes against racial groups
  • Protests
The right answer is: "protests."

The ACLU fired off a letter to Gail McGinn, Acting Under-Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, demanding that the materials be corrected immediately. Yesterday the DOD responded in an interview with, admitting the question was on the test that more than 1,500 department employees took. A Pentagon spokesman was quoted stating what should have been obvious:

"They should have made it clearer there's a clear difference between illegal violent demonstrations and peaceful, constitutionally protected protests," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Les Melnyk said on Thursday.

The DOD agreed to remove the question from the test and to send an e-mail to each employee that took it "explaining the error and the distinction between lawful protests and unlawful violent protests."

We are happy that the Pentagon is removing the test question, the fact that this mistake was even made shows a continuing lack of sensitivity to the important role that free speech plays in our society. In addition to anti-terrorism training, there seems to be a need for training on basic constitutional values at the Pentagon as well.

We also applaud the bravery of the whistleblower that brought this insult to constitutional values to light, which only highlights the need for Congress to pass legislation this year that provides real protection for federal employees who report waste, fraud, abuse or misconduct within the government. Tell your Senator you want to protect the workforce that is charged with protecting us all by granting all federal employees full and independent due process rights when they blow the whistle or refuse to violate the law, enforced through jury trials in federal court once administrative measures are exhausted, and "full circuit" review.

Originally posted to ACLU on Fri Jun 19, 2009 at 08:05 AM PDT.

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