By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 2008
The March 16, 2005, meeting of the Maryland Campaign to End the Death Penalty convened as usual at the Electrik Maid community center in Takoma Park, with an agenda similar to that of any grass-roots group with a passionate cause but no hired help.
Donations were solicited for signs, fliers and other administrative expenses. A table was planned for an upcoming Sunday farmers market. A sign-up sheet was prepared for distribution at the local town hall meeting the next month. After organizers had coordinated nine events from College Park to Baltimore to protest the scheduled execution of death-row inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr., they concluded the meeting.
To the activists, it was as noteworthy as a PTA gathering. To "Analyst Sparwasser," an agent for the Maryland State Police's Homeland Security and Intelligence Division, it was a target for undercover infiltration.
The agent, called Analyst Sparwasser in police records, detailed the meeting's activities in a single-space log, ending: "No other pertinent intelligence information was obtained." The log was included in a database of reports on at least 27 meetings of peace activists and death penalty opponents that police infiltrated over 14 months in 2005 and 2006.
The surveillance, documented in 46 pages of records released last week to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, contained no reports of illegal activity. The operation by Sparwasser and at least one other agent was authorized by then-state police superintendent Thomas E. Hutchins, who had been appointed by Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Ehrlich's successor, Martin O'Malley (D), said last week that the spying stopped before he took office in January 2007.
The intelligence logs offer a glimpse into the kinds of undercover operations that have taken root in many communities since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when federal money flowed to state and local law enforcement agencies across the country to pursue potential threats. The ACLU, which sued the state police to gain access to the surveillance documents, contends that the Maryland surveillance was illegal because the activist groups were not engaged in criminal activity. Hutchins, however, said the program was legal. He has not elaborated on the potential threat represented by the Takoma Park group and several others whose rallies, e-mail group lists and meetings were monitored.
The activists say there was no legitimate reason for the surveillance.
"Most of us have dedicated our lives to this," said Mike Stark, 37, an IT contractor from Silver Spring described in two of Sparwasser's logs of anti-death penalty activities as a socialist and an anarchist. Stark said he is a socialist but not an anarchist. "We're volunteers. We work for a living. Why are people conducting lawful activity being cross-indexed on government lists?" he asked.
Stark suggested that the state police direct their efforts to the governor's mansion in Annapolis. "This guy O'Malley is against the death penalty. You can never tell in these troubled times what Mr. O'Malley is up to," he joked. Ehrlich supports capital punishment, and many of the activists' protests surrounded the planned executions of Evans, whose case was stayed, and Wesley Baker, who was put to death in 2005.
The activists said last week that they often wonder whether undercover agents are attending their meetings. But they said enlisting new people to join their cause is their mission. They want to keep their door open, even to someone who might raise suspicions.
"We have had our doubts about some people," said Maria Allwine, a 55-year-old legal secretary named in several of the intelligence reports on the organizing activities of Pledge of Resistance-Baltimore, an anti-war group. "But we don't act on them. That's not who we are."
Now that they know their meetings and e-mail group lists were infiltrated, the activists are combing through their e-mails and memories to try to determine who Analyst Sparwasser might have been -- and whether they missed clues that could have helped identify the agent. Some remember the agent who logs show identified herself as Lucy Shoup to gain entry to meetings of Pledge of Resistance.
"She was a lively young woman in her 20s," recalled Terry Fitzgerald, a Baltimore doctor named in several logs of death-penalty protests. At some point, she changed her name from McDonald, which made him suspicious. She talked at several meetings. "But then she disappears," Fitzgerald recalled. "It didn't make sense."
Indeed, the police blended in by appearing to be engaged.
In a report from June 6, 2005, an agent notes: "During the course of the meeting, I asked if anyone knew anything about the Bio Tech conference in Frederick at Ft. Detrick on July 14, 2005 and no one at the meeting said they were aware of any planned actions on that day."
The agents always noted their own participation. "There were 6 people at the meeting including Max Obuszewski and Terry Fitzgerald. [Name redacted] attended the meeting as Lucy Shoup," reads one report from the Aug. 24, 2005, gathering of the Baltimore group.
The intelligence logs were recorded much like minutes written up by any volunteer group.
"On Thursday, December 1, a prayer meeting may be held, time and place to be determined," reads an entry from the Nov. 17, 2005, meeting of the Baltimore Coalition to End the Death Penalty, at the American Friends Service Committee Hall. The agents expressed concern about potential violence at protests when discussions of scheduled executions became heated or family members of the men on death row attended.
The protests did not turn violent. But at the end of each log, the agents requested to their superiors that their surveillance continue.
"Due to the above facts, I request that the case remain open," an agent noted at the bottom of a Nov. 28, 2005, entry describing a State House rally to protest Wesley Baker's execution. "There were no disturbances at the protest and no problems were detected by the covert troopers. The protestors left the scene without incident."
Just one event persuaded the police to close a case: a ceremony at Johns Hopkins University to commemorate the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. The ceremony featured poetry readings and songs, and participants held up signs protesting nuclear testing.
"Due to the above facts, I request that this case be closed," reads the agent's intelligence report.