Defense Department sees protests as terrorism

Antiterrorism training materials used by the Department of Defense teach that public protests should be regarded as “low level terrorism,” according to a letter of complaint sent to the department today by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

“Teaching employees that dissent on issues of public concern is something to be feared, rather than encouraged, is a dangerously counterproductive use of scarce security resources, making us less safe as a democracy,” Northern California ACLU Staff Attorney Ann Brick and ACLU Washington National Security Policy Council Michael German wrote in the letter to Gail McGinn, Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

“DoD employees cannot accomplish their mission of protecting our nation and its values unless they understand that those values encompass the right to criticize our government through protest activities,” they wrote. “It is imperative that they are taught the difference between political, religious or social activism and terrorism.”

Among the multiple-choice questions included in its Level 1 Antiterrorism Awareness training course – an annual training requirement for all DoD personnel that is fulfilled through web-based instruction – the DoD asks the following: “Which of the following is an example of low-level terrorist activity?” To answer correctly, the examinee must select “protests.” The ACLU wants that changed immediately, and wants corrective information sent to all DoD employees who received the training.

The ACLU letter notes this is particularly disturbing in light of the long-term pattern of government treating lawful dissent as terrorism. Here in the Bay Area, my colleagues and I reported exactly this back in 2003, as the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center fed local police agencies information on protests, with catastrophic results. Two years after that, it was the California National Guard.

I guess I’m surprised not only that government hasn’t yet learned its lesson about equating the exercise of our cherished constitutional rights with terrorism, but also that it’s so incredibly obvious in doing so.

UPDATE @ 3:57 P.M. THURSDAY 6/18: Fox News says the Defense Department has dropped the question from its exam.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.


  1. This is strange. Probably the work of some obscure DoD bureaucrat — most likely a civilian, not uniformed. It tends to be the middle-ranked civilian types, not the highly educated colonels and generals, who are control freaks. I seriously doubt it reflects the thinking of anybody in a position of leadership or influence. I mean, does anybody believe that Bob Gates or Obama shares that thinking? Still, it’s good that the ACLU calls them out on it, so that it can be fixed.

  2. Josh, have you seen the black helicopters transporting innocent protesters to the Walmart re-education centers?

  3. What, Elwood — no love for the First Amendment’s protection of “the freedom of speech … or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances?”

  4. The ACLU (Anti-Christian Lawyers Union) would like nothing better than more attacks against Americans to vindicate their position that combatting terrorists is really a sneaky attempt to deprive Americans of their rights and not a measure of self-defense. Of course, the ACLU cherishes the rights of illegal immigrants, convicts, homeless drunks and drug addicts, teen criminals, subversives and atheists above the run of ordinary Americans.

  5. Doesn’t the Constitution apply just as much to the unpopular as to the “ordinary Americans” among which you seem to count yourself?

  6. The ACLUnatics bypassed merely “unpopular” speech by individuals and small groups years ago. It’s jihadis, neo-Nazis,and self-styled “revolutionaries” that are just inches away from outright sedition that are their pet causes now. Oh, I almost forgot, that old standby, “offensive” references to the Deity.

  7. I’m surprised someone as “conservative” as you seem to be would be so eager to except so many from the Constitution’s protections, especially in a case such as this — isn’t equating political protest with terrorism just the sort of “big government” you’d generally oppose?

  8. JR, you keep invoking the letter of the Constitution. Look up the “Stalin constitution” drafted in 1936. It’s loaded with “rights of the People.” Of course, the political system rendered such “rights” meaningless. Without a strong commitment from the majority of citizens to the democratic system, the Constitution is just a pretty essay.

  9. So how does poo-pooing the government’s equation of dissent to terrorism amount to “a strong commitment from the majority of citizens to the democratic system?” Sounds as if you’re making my point for me.

  10. If you insist on a microscopic examination of our government’s actions, you’ll find plenty of mistakes. This country is under a significant threat and we have no way of knowing how many lives have been spared thanks to the actions of the State. If you, along with the ACLU, feel taking domestic casualties is an acceptable price to pay for preserving the letter of civil liberties, to allow “freedom of speech” at the cost of risking millions of Americans’ lives, you will preserve the Bill of Rights while destroying the nation. Lincoln said preserving the nation was worth the price of “putting the Constitution on the shelf” for a time.

  11. Ah, the “we-must-trade-freedoms-for-security” meme. You’re trying to prove a negative, claiming that because we’ve not been attacked since 2001, policies like this — training government workers that political dissent equates to terrorism — must be responsible. Anybody else out there buy that?

    (And, without getting into a side debate over Lincoln’s words and deeds, he faced a civil war with an enemy army marching on Washington, an imminent existential threat to a nation founded only a generation earlier. Do you truly believe that’s equivalent to what we face today?)

  12. RR (interesting that he wants to hide behind Ronald Raygun’s initials) is nothing more than a “elitist fascist” masquerading as a “populist liberatarian”, content to take potshots at those who would try to solve problems through sacrifice and self-initiative rather than enter the fray of the elective office arena himself.

  13. People like RR are too busy throwing rocks from the cheap seats.

    my grandfather used to say… if you can do it better, do it, or shut the F–k up.

  14. If it is true (it’s not) that “they hate us for our freedom”, you conservatives are doing a pretty good job of letting them win by helping to dismantle those freedoms.

    Just remember that your anti-tax protests are considered terrorism as well. Beginning to miss that first amendment yet?

    What you fail to understand is that the ACLU is working to provide freedoms to everyone, even those who don’t agree with it. They are making sure YOU still have the right to disagree with your government, to be educated free of any religious doctrine to which you do not subscribe (Christianity is dominant in this country so it gets into the most conflict with the ACLU, but if Hinduism or Islam were dominant, the ACLU would keep their doctrine out of your education as well), to vote as you see fit, and to otherwise have all the freedoms the constitution promises. It is fighting to make sure that America stays American even in times of trial.

    If you think it’s OK that this democracy crumbles into fascism at the first sign of trouble (we haven’t even been invaded, we’ve only suffered a handful of attacks), then I think you are weaker than the “victims” you claim we are. You want to abandon 200 years of progress merely because 2,800 people died 8 years ago, fewer than have died on our side in Iraq since then. You think that it’s too hard to remain a democracy while at war, and you don’t even want to try. You are a coward. You have abandoned common sense, allowed yourself to controlled by fear rather than reason, and in the process made yourself look very similar to the animals you claim we do not descend from.

    The difference between humans and other animals is that we can control our fears and urges, and do what is necessary even if it is what we are afraid of, and even if it seems more difficult than giving in to fear. What is right or wise is not always easy, nor is it always safe. The revolution was not an easy or safe thing to commit to, but the founding fathers did it anyway. You, out of fear, want to do the easy thing by undoing their work in the face of a threat that is nothing compared to the might of the British Empire in 1776. One of those founding fathers had this to say about you:

    “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” -Benjamin Franklin

  15. I nominate Charles for irrational rant of the week.

    Only 2800 people died, and that was eight years ago? Well, to hell with them, they don’t matter anymore.

    And anyone who disagrees with you is a coward who has abandoned common sense, is controlled by fear and on and on.

    Help is available for your problem.

  16. To all my dear friends on the Extreme Left:
    OK, I get it. Nobody smashed planes into SF and LA and none of your friends died. Your freedom and mine is in peril because somebody spies on International ANSWER, American Friends of Jihad, etc. Americans are in no great danger. I guess the hoopla required to board an airplane is just paranoia.
    The ACLU loves lawsuits more than liberty itself and has NEVER done a dang thing for anybody except their pathetic clients. Jesus said “Love those who hate you” but that in itself would offend the ACLUnacy.

  17. Well, RR, if your only purpose here was to get under my skin (as I’ve oft assumed), consider yourself a rousing success — as a New York City native with family and friends still there, I don’t appreciate your sanctimonious tone. Being both appalled by the events of 9/11 and in favor of protecting all Americans’ basic constitutional rights is neither contradictory nor an “extreme left” position, as most real conservatives would tell you.

    For the record, the DoD test didn’t say “an International ANSWER protest” — it just said “protests.” And even if it had singled out some specific group, I find it appalling that anyone would be so quick to deny those with whom they disagree the same constitutional rights which they themselves so smugly exercise every day. That, my dear friend, is fundamentally un-American.

  18. For the record, JR, my remarks were not aimed at you, unless you identify with the Extreme Left. Nothing you have written here would place you in that camp. As for your other not-so-humble correspondents, Elwood said all that needs to be said.

  19. I guess political dissent, or any dissent at all, is no longer legal and anyone who disagrees with the government is evil. Just another example of how America is on its way to pure dictatorship.

  20. Charles, you are in more denial than our President.
    I suppose your next comment is how ACORN was only going to help mislead voters..

  21. If it wasn’t so sad, it would almost be amusing to see so many people underestimate what is happening right under their very uninformed noses…there is much more to this than meets the collective eye. But to each their own, ignorance is still a choice.

  22. Anyone who thinks governments always have their best interests at heart have only to read the history of governments, particularly in the U.S.

    Every major initiative of the government nearly always has the public reason (which they release to the press) and the private reason (what the government actually wants to get out of the initiative).

    Governments over time tend to evolve to protect and consolidate their own power. This can be done gradually over decades or even centuries but governments will always strive for more control, bit by bit.

    History has also shown that governments can exercise the most control in times of war and conflict. People will accept nearly all initiatives in those circumstances and powers that may have taken a lifetime for governments to acquire can be passed fairly quickly.

    Ever since the events of 2001, the US has been accelerating it’s policy changes to break neck speed. And there have been some major ones. The public has been placated with buzz words like terrorist, extremists, and the latest, anti-government (a holdover from the Soviet Union incidentally).

    If you are elite and rich, you probably don’t have much to worry about even if the U.S. does continue on the same straight line through state control which was only associated with hardline socialist and communist governments of the past. If you’re a regular person, then this trend is very concerning indeed.

  23. The ACLU is guarding our liberties? Sure, just as the KKK is helping White people feel good about themselves.Don’t ask extremists to do your thinking.




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