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Features

I spy . . . a credible threat?

The government says it's trying to locate threats before terrorists strike. It has its eye on several groups. But is South Florida's Truth Project really that dangerous?

By SUSAN ASCHOFF
Published March 18, 2006


  photo
[AP photo]
Activist Rich Hersh’s home office in Boca Raton is decorated with the trappings of a former English professor, as well as a portrait of Jimmy Buffett and a Che Guevara poster. Hersh, a member of Truth Project, recently learned that the group, which presents information to counter military recruiters in high schools, has been under surveillance by the military.

BOCA RATON

Rich Hersh remembers the day he found out he was a threat to national security.

Hersh belongs to Truth Project Inc., an activist group that visits South Florida high schools to peaceably counter the pitch from military recruiters. Last fall, an NBC News crew came to Florida and informed the group that they were on a Defense Department list of hundreds of individuals and groups that had been under surveillance by the military.

The NBC crew brought some pages they'd obtained from the list. They pointed to a single entry:

13 - Nov - 04. Counter Military Recruitment Planning Meeting, Lake Worth.

Credible threat.

Hersh and his Truth Project colleagues processed what they were reading. Nov. 13, 2004? They'd gathered that day at a Quaker meeting house to talk about passing out fliers to high school students. Now they were being told their government spied on them. And in some vast and secret database, they were listed as a threat to their country.

"Incredible,'' Hersh remembers saying as the group absorbed what was on the page.

"What is the threat?''

*   *   *

Rich Hersh does not think of himself as a particularly menacing guy.

He has waved a Honk for Peace sign on a Delray Beach street corner. He got gassed in Miami while serving as a monitor for the trade meeting protests. He has never been arrested. He recycles his vegetable peelings into compost.

At 59, he still looks like the English professor he used to be: eyeglasses, silver beard, a house lined with bookshelves. A jammed office alcove is decorated with a framed photo of Jimmy Buffett and a poster of Che Guevara.

He marched for civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War when he was a student, a 20-something immersed in dissonance and Renaissance literature. A doctoral dissertation eluded him. He intended to write about the 19th century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon . . .

Hersh still loves Hopkins.

"I like the way he used words to increase the meaning, to expand and expand,'' he says. "You just can't get to any point where it looks like it's going to stop.''

While Hersh pursued his master's and his doctorate, he taught English classes at the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University. Eventually he left academia and worked for 20 years at IBM, writing software manuals for insurance companies and manufacturers of plastic film and paper.

Hersh clutches tissues in one hand and a mug of tea in the other, nursing the remnants of bronchitis. The mug reads: God is good all the time.

This February morning he is waiting for a friend to pick him up for counter-recruiting at Forest Hill High School. He cannot drive, and he has not worked since being diagnosed four years ago with progressive peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disorder in which his feet, hands, legs and arms tingle, freeze, burn, go numb and unleash excruciating pain. He sometimes uses a wheelchair.

He finds it laughable his government would spy on him. There was nothing clandestine about the Truth Project gathering at the Quaker house.

"We invited the press to the meeting, and they didn't even come,'' he says.

Allan Taylor, the friend who's driving them to the high school, is at the door, grousing about the incessant ringing of the wind chimes on the porch. Taylor maneuvers a hand truck with a plastic milk crate full of fliers from Hersh's crowded living room out to the car. A bumper sticker on his Toyota reads Dissent is Patriotic.

"I gave up privacy when I applied for medical insurance,'' says Taylor, 66.

"The problem today is not privacy,'' Hersh says. ''It's secrecy.''

*   *   *

The report featuring the Truth Project aired Dec. 13 on NBC Nightly News. More than 1,500 "suspicious incidents'' across the country over a 10-month period were listed on 400 pages obtained by NBC. The Truth Project meeting was among almost 50 antiwar or counter-recruiting events spied on by the U.S. military, their entry sandwiched between one about a protest at a military processing station in Sacramento, Calif., and another on an antiwar demonstration in New York City.

Truth Project member Marie Zwicker says she was "surprised and not surprised" about being surveilled. A Quaker and peace activist for many years, her outrage endures.

"Just because you are exercising your constitutional rights,'' Zwicker says, "doesn't mean you're not being spied on.''

The activist community in Palm Beach County is small. They know one another, Hersh says. But newcomers are welcome - they wouldn't want to interrogate a stranger at a meeting to determine friend or foe. They have nothing to hide.

"I think the reason they surveil us is because it's much easier than finding a terrorist,'' Hersh says.

The revelation about military surveillance is one of a series of disclosures since 9/11 about government agencies spying on Americans in the name of national security. The government says it is applying 9/11's critical lesson: Detect threats before terrorists strike.

The partial list acquired by NBC News was compiled as part of Talon, or Threat and Local Observation Notice, a program authorized in May 2003 by then-deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Less than a week after the Talon story broke, the New York Times reported on warrantless eavesdropping on Americans' overseas phone calls and e-mails by the National Security Agency. The American Civil Liberties Union also obtained documents showing the FBI is monitoring activists, including the environmental group Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.

The Florida ACLU has filed a Freedom of Information request on behalf of the Truth Project, six other Florida organizations and four individuals. On the national level, the ACLU filed to dislodge information about NSA spying on Americans.

In response to a request for comment from the St. Petersburg Times, the Pentagon e-mailed a statement.

"There is nothing more important to the U.S. military than the trust and goodwill of the American people,'' it reads. Although Talon was intended to uncover threats to military bases and personnel in the United States, "some Talon reporters came to view the system as a means to report information about demonstrations.''

In a March 8 letter to Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of the Judiciary Committee, Robert W. Rogalski, Defense Department deputy for counterintelligence, said a review had found 186 reports, including the names of 43 individuals, that should not have been put in the database because they were not about potential threats from foreign terrorists. Another 2,821 Talon reports are still under review, the letter said.

*   *   *

Hersh and Taylor pull into a handicapped space at Forest Hill High and hang Hersh's parking permit on the mirror. Taylor unloads the milk crate of fliers from the trunk, and the two head to the school's office.

"Hi," Hersh says to the woman behind the counter. "We're the Truth Project. We're here to table in the cafeteria."

The woman's face is blank. Hersh tells her they are expected.

Taylor, joined by James Venable, a middle school percussion teacher and Truth Project member, leaves to handle the table in the cafeteria. A reporter with the group is not allowed inside - "We're in FCAT blackout,'' says a district spokeswoman - and Hersh remains behind, sitting on a planter outside to talk.

After courtesy calls to two dozen Palm Beach County high school principals and the superintendent, the 18-month-old Truth Project crafted a truce out of what threatened to be confrontational: If high schools schedule military recruiter visits, then the counter-recruiters visit as well, on a different day.

"We don't hold protests or demonstrations,'' Hersh says. "We do public awareness.''

In school cafeterias and hallways, they wait for students to come to them. Before you sign, take the time, reads one of their fliers.

"We say, 'What are the reasons you'll be going?' They say, 'I'm going to be stationed in Hawaii for four years so I can surf,' '' says Hersh. "They still think they're going to get $70,000 for college; their best buddy is pumping up the military.

"A recruiter tells them they can be a sniper, macho like in the movies, an army of one,'' Hersh says. "Some of them come out with a chin bar, and while the guys, the students, are doing chin-ups, the girls come over ... ooooooh. What the kids like is the camouflage. They'll have an attractive woman and a handsome man. They've gone to marketing school, and they're marketing the military.''

Hersh is 5 feet 6 - half that when folded into a wheelchair. He keeps three spiral notebooks stuffed in a shirt pocket and wears seven rubber bracelets on his wrists. Lance Armstrong's yellow band. Wage Peace's blue. A black band sent by his sister that one has to squint to read. I did not vote for Bush.

As the school's lunchtime ends, Taylor and Venable emerge from the building. There are more than 1,600 students here. They've talked to perhaps five. A girl in the Junior ROTC program, a shocked expression on her face, asked, "They let you on campus?''

"We're not against the military,'' Venable says. "We believe you should make informed choices.'' An African-American, he volunteers because there are "a lot of disenfranchised students who are suckered into the military.''

The lengthiest conversation of the lunch hour was with a teacher who called them unpatriotic.

*   *   *

Hersh has three brothers and a sister-in-law who served many years in the Navy and Coast Guard. They are accustomed to what one calls Hersh's silliness.

His 20-year-old daughter Darcy says her dad is a former hippie who turned "completely earthy'' when he met his fiancee about five years ago.

Darcy lives in Orlando and works at a Wendy's and as a janitor at a car dealership to pay living expenses and for community college. Her dad, she says, doesn't have a lot of money: He had to pay $297 for a cushion for his wheelchair.

"I thought about enlisting. The military gives you a place to live and money to live on,'' she says. "My dad told me that they lie'' about what they will give you.

After the revelations about the Talon program, Hersh went to Washington to tell a panel of House Democrats that government agents have rummaged through the trash and snooped into e-mails of dissidents in South Florida. A dark SUV was parked for hours on his Boca Raton street, the driver at the wheel. When approached, Hersh says, the vehicle took off.

Hersh got 15 minutes at the three-hour hearing on Jan. 20. He sat in his wheelchair. He told them he was outraged.

"There should not be a single American who today remains confident that it couldn't happen to them,'' Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, one of the panelists, said during the hearing.

*   *   *

Returning home from the high school, Hersh's body protests the day's activity. He coughs and coughs, gripping the back of the sofa for support. Tomorrow his limbs will punish him with pain.

This month a survey found almost three in five Americans can name more than one member of the cartoon family The Simpsons, including the dog and cat. Only one in five can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress.

"I'm not really that afraid of terrorists,'' Hersh says.

Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart and Maggie.

"Despair will get us.''

Susan Aschoff can be reached at aschoff@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293.

[Last modified March 17, 2006, 12:42:41]


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