Activist Groups Not Being Watched
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday that the Maryland State Police have ceased the surveillance of war protesters and death penalty opponents conducted under his predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and called the monitoring a politically motivated mistake.
"In retrospect, they should not have done it for the duration of time they did," said O'Malley (D), who defeated Ehrlich (R) in 2006. "The police have an obligation to run out potential threats to public safety, but if you get into a position where investigations are based on the political views or policy views of one group or another, the police are not doing their job."
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), meanwhile, called for a "full accounting" of the surveillance and questioned whether the state police Homeland Security and Intelligence Division, which receives federal funding, crossed the line in infiltrating activist groups.
"Our nation cannot allow police activity that is intended to discourage dissent by Americans who may disagree with certain government policies," Cardin said in a statement.
In 2005, Cardin, then a member of the House, held a meeting on Iraq policy with a Baltimore-based peace group. The meeting was the subject of one of dozens of intelligence logs that undercover state police officers entered into a database as they monitored activists from Takoma Park to Baltimore.
As opposition to the war and Maryland's death penalty heated up in 2005 and 2006, at least two state police agents used aliases to infiltrate organizational meetings, public forums, prison vigils and a variety of e-mail group lists.
Records of the logs were released this week to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which sued the state police last month, seeking access to public documents about the monitoring.
The ACLU calls the surveillance a violation of federal law because the groups' activities were nonviolent and unrelated to terrorism. But Tim Hutchins, the state police superintendent at the time of the surveillance, said it was done legally. He also said Ehrlich was not aware of it.
"Weren't they public meetings?" Hutchins said of the gatherings. The groups monitored included the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the Pledge of Resistance-Baltimore.
Hutchins stayed in the superintendent job for the opening months of O'Malley's term. But the governor said yesterday that the surveillance, documented over 14 months, ended in May 2006, before his election.
The agents monitored the groups' activities -- collectively spending almost 300 hours on surveillance -- even though their logs contained no reports of illegal activity and consistently showed that the activists were not planning or carrying out violent protests.
ACLU lawyer David Rocah said he was heartened by O'Malley's assurance that the activists are no longer under police surveillance. But he called on the governor to make public the scope of the program and who the police were watching.
"People whose names were put into these logs need the opportunity to review them," Rocah said. "They have to be purged."
Unless the O'Malley administration "puts binding reforms in place" that state "when police can open an investigation and when it must be discontinued," the civil liberties union will not consider the matter closed, he said.
O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor's legal staff is reviewing the requests and plans to respond shortly.
The state police follow federal guidelines on criminal intelligence gathering that were set up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A law enforcement office cannot collect "criminal intelligence information about the political, religious or social views, associations, or activities of any individual or any group . . . or other organization unless such information directly relates to criminal conduct or activity," the guidelines state.
The agents entered the name of a prominent Baltimore peace activist, Max Obuszewski, into a federal database that tracks terrorists and drug dealers.
Asked whether the activists were threats, O'Malley said: "The vast, vast majority of us are not a threat to public safety."