Maryland Police Spied On Activists, Claim It Was Legal

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

cross posted from The Dream Antilles

WaPO reports that Maryland police infiltrated and spied upon peace and death penalty abolition groups in 2005.  The information the cops gathered was apparently sent to other law enforcement agencies.  No crimes were alleged to have been committed by the activists.

That crushing sound you hear is the crumbling of the First Amendment:

Undercover Maryland State Police officers conducted surveillance on war protesters and death penalty opponents, including some in Takoma Park, for more than a year while Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor, documents released yesterday show.

Detailed intelligence reports logged by at least two agents in the police department’s Homeland Security and Intelligence Division reveal close monitoring of the movements as the Iraq war and capital punishment were heatedly debated in 2005 and 2006.

Organizational meetings, public forums, prison vigils, rallies outside the State House in Annapolis and e-mail group lists were infiltrated by police posing as peace activists and death penalty opponents, the records show. The surveillance continued even though the logs contained no reports of illegal activity and consistently indicated that the activists were not planning violent protests.

Then-state police superintendent Tim Hutchins acknowledged in an interview yesterday that the surveillance took place on his watch, adding that it was done legally. He said Ehrlich (R) was not aware of it. “You do what you think is best to protect the general populace of the state,” said Hutchins, now a federal defense contractor.

Did you read that?  The then state police superintendent says that the surveillance “was done legally.”  I feel so very assured and comforted by this conclusion about the law.  And protected.  Protected from what you might ask?  And from whom?  “To protect the general populace of the state” is a police goal that apparently does not include protecting the privacy and right of association of death penalty abolitionists and peace activists.  

The WaPo article, after reporting this, turns to a “balanced” discussion of the “legality”  of these activities.  The ACLU properly says the infiltation and surveillance was illegal:

“To invest this many hours investigating the most all-American of activities without any scintilla of evidence there is anything criminal going on is shocking,” ACLU lawyer David Rocah said at a news conference in Baltimore yesterday. “It’s Kafkaesque.”

The ACLU contends that the surveillance was illegal, even under broader powers the federal government gave law enforcement agencies after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The police, of course, insist that this kind of surveillance is entirely legal and necessary:

But the police force defends its legality, and some legal experts said the program appears to be a constitutional tool available to authorities investigating threats to public safety.

“No illegal actions by State Police have ever been taken against any citizens or groups who have exercised their right to free speech and assembly in a lawful manner,” Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, the state police superintendent appointed last year by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), said in a statement. “Only when information regarding criminal activity is alleged will police continue to investigate leads to ensure the public safety.”

State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), who teaches constitutional law at American University, called the surveillance “extremely dubious homeland security work.” But he added that it is probably a constitutional use of police powers to conduct undercover work.

Henry Fawell, Ehrlich’s spokesman, said: “State law enforcement uses a variety of means to keep its citizens safe. It would be inappropriate for me to discuss them publicly.” While in office, Ehrlich supported both the Iraq war and the death penalty.

This analysis is extremely fuzzy.  Of course police may infiltrate and surveil groups that are planning on carrying out illegal activities.  They can, of course, infiltrate groups they have reasonable suspicion to believe plan to blow up buildings and kill people.  But to do that, they need to have some indication– leave aside for the moment the level of suspicion they must have– that something illegal is planned.  However, according to Uebercop Sheridan, all it takes to infiltrate your weekly peace meditation group is just an allegation “regarding criminal activity.”  And of course, whoever made that allegation is a secret, as is the nature of the allegation that was made.

And if no illegal activities of any kind are observed after the tip and after time, do you stop the infiltration and surveillance and record keeping?  Of course, not.  You never know when groups advocating an end to various kinds of violence will suddenly turn aside from satygraha and decide to plunge into committing crimes of violence, do you?

And Ehrlich’s mouthpiece says all is OK because this is just a “means to keep [the] citizens safe.”  This doesn’t bear scrutiny either.  How does keeping records about people who are trying to end state killing keep citizens safe?  How does keeping records and forwarding them to other agencies about people who are opposed to war keep citizens safe?

It doesn’t.

Of course, the illegally acquired information was shared with other agencies who keep records:

Reports of the surveillance were shared with numerous federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including the National Security Agency and Anne Arundel County’s police department.

The groups monitored include the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, which has many members from Takoma Park, and the Pledge of Resistance-Baltimore, a peace group that has been vocal in opposing the Iraq war.

So now, whatever was written about the activists has been spread around and there are files in computers and many agencies about them.  Their crime?  Advocating peace and an end to state killing.

The article has more details about the spying.

There is no question whatsoever that the reported surveillance was completely inappropriate and illegal.  And it has clear consequences in chilling protected activity.  An example of this?  Just notice, if you will, how even if you are entirely and completely non-violent the fact of this reported surveillance, and the possibility of similar surveillance elsewhere, deters you from signing up and participating in peace and death penalty abolition groups.  Nobody wants their privacy invaded by the cops, even if they’re doing absolutely nothing wrong. You don’t need that. You might rather stay home.  


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  1. Thanks for reading.  Please pass this on.

    • geomoo on July 18, 2008 at 19:01

    Peace means war, etc.  I thought I understood what that meant, but living in these times has deepened my appreciation of the fact that the thinking of the “general populace” can be completely backwards.  Murderers and torturers need protection from advocates of non-violence.  I guess the threat would be that so many people get brainwashed into being non-violent that crime would end and the police would lose their jobs.  I’m still trying to figure out how this poses a threat to the general populace.

    Hey, I know it’s only the bible, but it can name some things.  How about this:

    The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.

  2. “No illegal actions by State Police have ever been taken against any citizens or groups who have exercised their right to free speech and assembly in a lawful manner,”

    You just know they did something highly illegal.

    • Mu on July 18, 2008 at 20:16

    President Bunnypants behaved in felonious activity involving spying, and nothing happened to him, so, well, why not?

    Mu . . .

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