Sacramento, CA — U.S. military authorities on Wednesday began investigating whether a California National Guard unit was established to spy on U.S. citizens, as about 30 demonstrators outside guard headquarters confronted officials backed by armed soldiers.
The federal probe of the nation´s largest National Guard force involves the U.S. Army´s inspector general, the federal National Guard Bureau´s inspector general and the National Guard Bureau´s legal division.
The unit has raised concern among peace activists that the Guard is resorting to the same type of civilian monitoring that characterized Vietnam War-era protests.
“These are your mothers, grandmothers and neighbors,” said George Main, president of Veterans for Peace and an organizer of Wednesday´s protest outside guard headquarters. “They are not potential terrorist threats. The excuse that these groups might be infiltrated is an insult to the intelligence of every Californian.”
Under scrutiny is a California National Guard unit with a tongue-twisting name – the Information Synchronization, Knowledge Management and Intelligence Fusion program. It was created last year and came to public light after a recent story in the San Jose Mercury News.
The unit monitored a Mother´s Day anti-war demonstration at the state Capitol that was organized by several peace groups, according to an e-mail chain originating in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger´s press office and made public by the newspaper.
Guard spokesman Col. Doug Hart said monitoring activities merely meant tracking media coverage of the protest, which included the Gold Star Families for Peace, Raging Grannies and CodePink.
“Even with a seemingly innocent act as watching TV, they´re breaking the law,” said Natalie Wormeli, a member of Code Pink, a women´s peace group. She sat in a wheelchair at Wednesday´s protest wearing a T-shirt reading “One Nation Under Surveillance.”
The protesters spoke outside the Guard´s headquarters in a suburban Sacramento office park, and at one point engaged in a verbal confrontation with Guard officials as soldiers carrying M-16 rifles stood in the background. One soldier blocked the locked headquarters door as the protesters tried to enter.
California National Guard officials defended the unit. “We do not spy on people,” Hart said. “Never have, never will.”
The Guard has described the unit as consisting of two members who monitor the military´s classified e-mail system and seven others who help gauge terrorist threats to bridges, buildings and other structures.
Officials in the guard and the governor´s office said they will cooperate in the federal inquiry. Hart said the federal units were declining comment on their probe. Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Pamela Hart declined to even acknowledge that an investigation was under way.
Meanwhile, a state senator has begun his own investigation into the guard unit.
Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Garden Grove, said he is concerned that Col. Jeff Davis, who oversaw the unit, has since retired and that the hard drive on his computer was erased.
Doug Hart said Davis´ retirement and the cleansing of the computer were routine and happened before Dunn began investigating the unit last week.
Dunn runs a subcommittee that oversees the Guard´s funding and is seeking Senate subpoenas for Davis and the computer. In a news conference Wednesday, Dunn said he suspects the federal probe is designed to keep evidence away from state investigators and the public hearings he plans.
The acting adjutant general for the California National Guard, Brigadier General John R. Alexander, said he would provide no details to Dunn while the federal investigation is ongoing.
Dunn questioned federal jurisdiction in the case and suggested that Schwarzenegger, as the state´s commander in chief, should order the Guard to cooperate. He also said the governor should consider involving the California Highway Patrol to ensure that no evidence is destroyed or removed from the state.
State Guard officials said they expect to be able to convince Dunn that they have done nothing wrong.
Schwarzenegger originally sought a federal review of possible accounting irregularities under the Guard´s former commander, Major Gen. Thomas Eres. Eres resigned abruptly in June amid questions about whether he falsified passing a required marksmanship test and tried to arrange a flight on a military aircraft for members of a Republican group.
The governor´s office expanded the request after questions arose about the special unit arose.