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More Groups Than Thought Monitored in Police Spying
Investigators also tracked activists protesting weapons manufactured by defense contractor Lockheed Martin. They watched two pacifist Catholic nuns from Baltimore. Environmental activists made it into the database, as did three leaders of Code Pink, a national women's antiwar group, who do not live in Maryland.
PETA was labeled a "security threat group" in April 2005, and by July police were looking into a tip that the group had learned about a failing chicken farm in Kent County and planned on "protesting or stealing the chickens." A "very casually dressed" undercover trooper attended a speech by PETA's president that month and waited afterward to see whether anyone talked about chickens. Nobody did.
Police had turned to the database in a low-cost effort to replace antiquated file cabinets. The Washington High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a regional clearinghouse for drug-related criminal information, offered its software for free.
But the database did not include categories that fit the nature of the protest-group investigations. So police created "terrorism" categories to track the activists, according to the state review. Some information was sent directly to HIDTA's main database as part of an agreement to share information.
Putting the activists into the database was "a function of nothing more than the insertion of a piece of paper in a paper file in a file cabinet," Sheridan wrote. But labeling them "terrorists," he said was "incorrect and improper."
The activists fear that they will land on federal watch lists, in part because the police shared their intelligence information with at least seven area law enforcement agencies.
HIDTA Director Tom Carr said his organization's database became a dead end for the information because law enforcement agencies cannot access the data directly. The database instead acts as a "pointer": Investigators enter case information and the database indicates whether another agency has related material and instructs investigators to contact that agency. The activists were not a match with any other data, Carr said, and their information has since purged.
"The problem lies in the fact that once [the state police] checked it out and found it was not accurate, they should have removed it from the system," Carr said. "And they did not do that."
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The surveillance program became public largely because of documents released during a trespassing trial for Obuszewski, the nuns and another activist arrested during an antiwar rally at the National Security Agency. The documents showed that Baltimore intelligence officers were tracking them. The American Civil Liberties Union then filed public records requests with several law enforcement agencies. When the state police refused to release what they had, the ACLU sued.
O'Malley condemned the monitoring as a politically motivated mistake and moved quickly to seek answers. He appointed Sachs, who had prosecuted Catholic activists for raiding a Selective Service office in 1968.
Sachs called the spying a "systemic failure" that violated federal regulations and said police were oblivious to the activists' rights to free expression and association.
The Maryland State Police have changed their policies and plan to solicit advice from the ACLU, the General Assembly, prosecutors and police about regulations that would raise the bar for intelligence-gathering to "reasonable suspicion" of a crime.
Some activists have responded by redoubling their efforts.
Pat Elder, a Bethesda advocate who organizes a demonstration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the gates of Lockheed Martin's headquarters, sent a public message to police last month on a local Web site.
"Did it ever occur to you that we're on the side of the good guys and you're not?" Elder wrote in an open letter to the NSA, the Maryland State Police and Montgomery police. "How do you think it makes us feel to know you're looking over our shoulders this way?"
Staff researchers Julie Tate and Meg Smith contributed to this report.