More Groups Than Thought Monitored in Police Spying
Sunday, January 4, 2009
The Maryland State Police surveillance of advocacy groups was far more extensive than previously acknowledged, with records showing that troopers monitored -- and labeled as terrorists -- activists devoted to such wide-ranging causes as promoting human rights and establishing bike lanes.
Intelligence officers created a voluminous file on Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calling the group a "security threat" because of concerns that members would disrupt the circus. Angry consumers fighting a 72 percent electricity rate increase in 2006 were targeted. The DC Anti-War Network, which opposes the Iraq war, was designated a white supremacist group, without explanation.
One of the possible "crimes" in the file police opened on Amnesty International, a world-renowned human rights group: "civil rights."
According to hundreds of pages of newly obtained police documents, the groups were swept into a broad surveillance operation that started in 2005 with routine preparations for the scheduled executions of two men on death row.
The operation has been called a "waste of resources" by the current police superintendent and "undemocratic" by the governor.
Police have acknowledged that the monitoring, which took place during the administration of then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), spiraled out of control, with an undercover trooper spending 14 months infiltrating peaceful protest groups. Troopers have said they inappropriately labeled 53 individuals as terrorists in their database, information that was shared with federal authorities. But the new documents reveal a far more expansive set of police targets and indicate that police did not close some files until late 2007.
The surveillance ended with no arrests and no evidence of violent sedition. Instead, troopers are preparing to purge files and say they are expecting lawsuits.
The effort, made public in July, confirmed the fears of civil liberties groups that have warned about domestic spying since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Interviews, e-mails, public records and an independent state review reveal that police in Maryland were motivated by something far narrower: a query about death penalty activism directed to a police antiterrorism unit that was searching for a mission.
But some observers say Sept. 11 opened the door. "No one was thinking this was al-Qaeda," said Stephen H. Sachs, a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to review the case. "But 9/11 created an atmosphere where cutting corners was easier."
Maryland has not been alone. The FBI and police departments in several cities, including Denver in 2002 and New York before the 2004 Republican National Convention, also responded to the threat of terrorism by spying on activists.
Sachs's review, released in October, condemned the Maryland spying as a severe lapse in judgment. No one has been reprimanded or fired, and the undercover trooper has been promoted twice.
To date, the activists listed as terrorists are not known to have experienced any related limits in their travel, employment or financial transactions.