Saturday, January 14, 2006

A Protest, a Spy Program and a Campus in an Uproar

The New York Times
A Protest, a Spy Program and a Campus in an Uproar

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - The protest was carefully orchestrated, planned for weeks by Students Against War during Friday evening meetings in a small classroom on the University of California campus here.

So when the military recruiters arrived for the job fair, held in an old dining hall last April 5 - a now fateful day for a scandalized university - the students had their two-way radios in position, their cyclists checking the traffic as hundreds of demonstrators marched up the hilly roads of this campus on the Central Coast and a dozen moles stationed inside the building, reporting by cellphone to the growing crowd outside.

"Racist, sexist, antigay," the demonstrators recalled shouting. "Hey, recruiters, go away!"

Things got messy. As the building filled, students storming in were blocked from entering. The recruiters left, some finding that the tires of their vehicles had been slashed. The protesters then occupied the recruiters' table and, in what witnesses described as a minor melee, an intern from the campus career center was injured.

Fast forward: The students had left campus for their winter vacation in mid-December when a report by MSNBC said the April protest had appeared on what the network said was a database from a Pentagon surveillance program. The protest was listed as a "credible threat" - to what is not clear to people around here - and was the only campus action among scores of other antimilitary demonstrations to receive the designation.

Over the winter break, Josh Sonnenfeld, 20, a member of Students Against War, or SAW, put out the alert. "Urgent: Pentagon's been spying on SAW, and thousands of other groups," said his e-mail message to the 50 or so students in the group.

Several members spent the rest of their break in a swirl of strategy sessions by telephone and e-mail, and in interviews with the news media. Since classes began on Jan. 5, they have stepped up their effort to figure out whether they are being spied on and if so, why.

Students in the group said they were not entirely surprised to learn that the federal government might be spying on them.

"On the one hand, I was surprised that we made the list because generally we don't get the recognition we deserve," Mr. Sonnenfeld said. "On the other hand, it doesn't surprise me because our own university has been spying on us since our group was founded. This nation has a history of spying on political dissenters."

The April protest, at the sunny campus long known for surfing, mountain biking and leftist political activity, drew about 300 of the university's 13,000 students, organizers said. (Students surmise that, these days, they are out-agitating their famed anti-establishment peers at the University of California, Berkeley, campus, 65 miles northwest of here.)

"This is the war at home," said Jennifer Low, 20, a member of the antiwar group. "So many of us were so discouraged and demoralized by the war, a lot of us said this is the way we can stop it."

A Department of Defense spokesman said that while the Pentagon maintained a database of potential threats to military installations, military personnel and national security, he could not confirm that the information released by MSNBC was from the database. The spokesman, who said he was not authorized to be quoted by name, said he could not answer questions about whether the government was or had been spying on Santa Cruz students.

California lawmakers have demanded an explanation from the government. Representative Sam Farr, a Democrat whose district includes Santa Cruz, was one of several who sent letters to the Bush administration. "This is a joke," Mr. Farr said in an interview. "There is a protest du jour at Santa Cruz."

"Santa Cruz is not a terrorist town," he added. "It's an activist town. It's essentially Berkeley on the coast."

The university's chancellor, Denise D. Denton, said, "We would like to know how this information was gathered and understand better what's going on here."

"Is this something that happens under the guise of the new Patriot Act?" Ms. Denton asked.

As to the students' insistence that the university is monitoring their activities, Ms. Denton said that she had checked with campus police and other university offices and that "there is absolutely no spying going on."

The antiwar group is working closely with the California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which plans to file a public records request with the federal government on the students' behalf, A.C.L.U. officials said.

Meanwhile, members of the campus's College Republicans, strongly critical of the protesters' tactics last April, are rolling their eyes at all the hubbub.

"I think it's worth looking into, but right now I think they are overblowing it," said Chris Rauer, internal vice president of the College Republicans. "I think people are taking their anger over the war out on this."

The Defense Department has issued a statement saying that in October the Pentagon began a review of its database to ensure that the reporting system complied with federal laws and to identify information that might have been improperly entered. All department personnel involved in gathering intelligence were receiving "refresher" training on the laws and policies, the statement said.

With this happening in academia, there has been a good deal of philosophical contemplation and debate over the socioeconomic and political dynamics underlying the uproar.

"I had multiple reactions," said Faye J. Crosby, a professor of social psychology and chairwoman of the Academic Senate.

"One reaction was, 'Gosh, I wonder if we're doing something right?' " Professor Crosby said. "Another reaction was it's a waste of taxpayer money. What are we a threat to?"

"The real sadness," she added, "is the breakdown in discourse of the marketplace of ideas."