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Spying uncovered

Documents show state police monitored peace and anti-death penalty groups

By Nick Madigan

Sun Reporter

July 18, 2008

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Undercover Maryland State Police officers repeatedly spied on peace activists and anti-death penalty groups in recent years and entered the names of some in a law-enforcement database of people thought to be terrorists or drug traffickers, newly released documents show.

The files, made public yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, depict a pattern of infiltration of the activists' organizations in 2005 and 2006. The activists contend that the authorities were trying to determine whether they posed a security threat to the United States. But none of the 43 pages of summaries and computer logs - some with agents' names and whole paragraphs blacked out - mention criminal or even potentially criminal acts, the legal standard for initiating such surveillance.

State police officials said they did not curtail the protesters' freedoms.

The spying, detailed in logs of at least 288 hours of surveillance over a 14-month period, recalls similar infiltration by FBI agents of civil rights and anti-war groups decades ago, particularly under the administration of President Richard M. Nixon.

David Rocah, a staff attorney for the ACLU in Baltimore, said at a news conference yesterday that he found it "stupefying" that more than 30 years later, the government is still targeting people who do nothing more than express dissent.

"Everything noted in these logs is a lawful, First Amendment activity," Rocah said. "For undercover police officers to spend hundreds of hours entering information about lawful political protest activities into a criminal database is an unconscionable waste of taxpayer dollars and does nothing to make us safer from actual terrorists or drug dealers."

The ACLU obtained the documents from the state attorney general's office through a Maryland Public Information Act lawsuit.

Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, said in a statement yesterday that the department "does not inappropriately curtail the expression or demonstration of the civil liberties of protesters or organizations acting lawfully."

"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," Sheridan said. "Only when information regarding criminal activity is alleged will police continue to investigate leads to ensure the public safety."

Nothing in the documents indicates criminal activity or intent on the part of the protesters, ACLU officials said.

Nonetheless, the state police's Homeland Security and Intelligence Division sent covert agents to infiltrate the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, a peace group; the Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty; and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans, a death row inmate.

Using a fake e-mail address and an alias, an undercover agent joined the e-mail list of the death penalty group, the documents say. Agents also monitored the group's organizational meetings, public forums and events in churches, as well as rallies on Lawyers Mall in Annapolis and in Baltimore outside the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, known as "SuperMax."

Most of the spies' reports were innocuous. After an Aug. 24, 2005, gathering of the Evans group, an undercover officer wrote in a log: "The meeting concluded with members talking about trying to get the man running for Baltimore County State's Attorney to commit to his plans regarding the death penalty in the county."

Baltimore County was responsible for more capital punishment cases than any other Maryland jurisdiction at the time.

Another entry about the Evans group revealed that agents had spent 50 hours of "investigative time" shadowing its members in March, April and May 2005. The entry mentioned that a May 25, 2005, meeting of the group was attended by Max Obuszewski, a former Peace Corps member and longtime activist who moved to Baltimore in 1983, and Terry Fitzgerald, who heads the anti-death penalty coalition and established the Evans group.

Both attended yesterday's news conference.

State police appeared to have been specifically tracking Obuszewski's activities. His name, the documents show, was entered into the Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area database, even though there was "not a scintilla of evidence" that he deserved to be listed, said Rocah, the ACLU attorney.

"Mr. Obuszewski has devoted his entire life to peace," Rocah said. "If there is anyone in the world who is further from a terrorist, it is hard for me to imagine."

Obuszewski agreed. "You cannot get more insulting than to call me a terrorist," he said. Besides, he went on, the groups he belongs to hold open meetings and publicize their schedules. "Why would someone come to those meetings and pretend to be someone else? Why are government agencies targeting pacifists?"

One reason, he theorized, is that local police agencies need funds from the federal government, and surveillance of supposed "terrorists" might be a good way to keep getting the money. No matter the reason, the news that the Bush administration keeps about 1 million names on a terrorist watch-list is disheartening, Obuszewski said, since so many people cannot possibly warrant inclusion.

In February 2006, the national ACLU and its affiliates filed multiple federal Freedom of Information requests seeking records of Pentagon surveillance of anti-war groups around the country. Using information from a secret Pentagon database, NBC News reported that a unit of the Department of Defense had been accumulating intelligence about domestic organizations and their protest activities as part of a mission to track "potential terrorist threats."

"It serves no security purpose to infiltrate peaceful groups," said Michael German, a former FBI agent who specialized in counter-terrorism and who joined the ACLU two years ago as policy counsel in its Washington legislative office. "It completely misuses law enforcement resources."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, German said, the government has "actively encouraged" local police agencies to become intelligence gatherers and to compile information that does not necessarily have a connection to criminal activity.

Despite the fact that the Maryland infiltrators' reports consistently said the activists acted lawfully, agents continued to recommend that the spying continue. Reports of the surveillance were sent to at least seven federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including the National Security Agency, the police departments of Baltimore, Baltimore County, Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, and the state General Services police.

The documents released yesterday show the kind of information they were trading. Among other things, Obuszewski and fellow activists arranged a meeting with then-Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in 2005 in which they asked him to support a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland, said she feared that the documents released so far "may be only the tip of the proverbial iceberg."

In a letter sent yesterday to Gov. Martin O'Malley, Goering wrote that the state police had "recorded extensive information about specific individuals and groups, including describing their political outlook, whether they were articulate, what political activities they are engaged in, and attended private planning meetings in a covert capacity."

The only potentially unlawful activity mentioned anywhere in the documents, she said, were two instances of nonviolent civil disobedience. In one, activists refused to leave a guard station during a protest at the National Security Agency after bringing cookies and drinks for the guards, and in the other, they hatched a plan to place photographs of soldiers who died in Iraq on the fence surrounding the White House.

"Maryland residents should feel free to join a peaceful protest without fear that their names will wind up in police files," Goering wrote. "They should feel free to engage in nonviolent dissent without fear of being branded as 'terrorists' or 'security threat groups' in shared law-enforcement databases."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com