TACOMA, WASH. — TACOMA, Wash. -- Pentagon intelligence agents gathered and filed information on American POW-MIA activists, reporters pursuing POW stories and even actor Michael Douglas and his plans for a prisoner of war movie, according to records obtained by a Tacoma, Wash., newspaper.
The American Civil Liberties Union said yesterday the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency may have violated federal law by gathering the information and keeping records on legitimate political, journalistic and artistic activities by U.S. citizens.
"We question whether the DIA has been acting illegally here and intend to look into it further," said Kate Martin, director of the ACLU's Center for National Security Studies.
The Pentagon yesterday had no immediate comment on whether the DIA program was still in operation or whether it violated strict rules limiting the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to collect data on American citizens.
A spokesman for the Senate's Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees the DIA, declined to discuss the specific DIA records, but did note the strict legal limits Congress has set on intelligence gathering within the U.S.
"There is a law out there that generally prohibits U.S. intelligence agencies from collecting information on American citizens," said spokesman Zach Messitte.
Exceptions to the policy must usually be approved by court order, said Mr. Messitte, and the intelligence gathering is then normally pursued by the FBI.
The DIA files, from the agency's special office on POW-MIAs, contain information on journalists from CBS, NBC, the Washington Times and the Riverside (Calif.) Press Enterprise; information on POW activists and reports concerning a returned U.S. prisoner and his collaboration with a movie star.
The records, from 1985 and '86, were released under a Tacoma News Tribune Freedom of Information request for records on U.S. deserters returned from Southeast Asia. They appear to come from files related to Robert Garwood, a Marine captured in Vietnam who returned to the U.S. in 1979.
Some of the information in the files was withheld by the Pentagon on national security and privacy grounds.
Of the information released, most was supplied by informants whose names have been censored from documents provided to the News Tribune. The names of the Pentagon officials who authored the memos are also blanked out.
The records contain several references to media interest in the POW issue. For example, the March 14, 1986, record states: "An NBC Task Force is also planning a film regarding the PW issue, and will be in contact with Garwood after his move to California."
The DIA files also contain information on private citizens involved in the POW issue.
Included in the documents was mention of a Nov. 9, 1985, meeting of the Vietnam Veterans Coalition in Arlington, Va.
The memo's source, whose identify was again censored, noted that 35 POW activists attended the meeting and "everyone was well dressed and 'not shabby.' "
Ironically, the meeting reportedly included admissions by two Green Berets that they had taken part in a DIA plan "to monitor" POW activists.
The meeting included other comments by POW activists and Southeast Asians, all reported to the DIA by its informant.
Ms. Martin, the ACLU official, said the government's surveillance of such a meeting was disturbing.
"The government had no business either conducting surveillance of that meeting or keeping a record of that meeting," he said.
That view was shared by Mike Van Atta, a long-time POW activist whose comments at the 1985 meeting were also kept in the DIA file.
Mr. Van Atta, reached yesterday at his Chatham, N.J., home, said he had long known he was under some type of government surveillance.
"I've been a thorn in their side," said Mr. Van Atta, who publishes a POW newsletter often critical of the Pentagon."
"I'm sure it has very much aggravated and irritated the Defense Intelligence Agency," said the decorated Vietnam veteran, now an advertising salesman.
As for the surveillance: "I don't really know if it's legal or illegal," said Mr. Van Atta, "[but] for many years I've been very angry about it."