A day after the American Civil Liberties Union released documents showing that the Maryland State Police spied on peace activists and anti-death penalty groups, Gov. Martin O'Malley vowed yesterday not to allow state law enforcement agencies to monitor people exercising their right to free speech.
In a prepared statement, O'Malley, a Democrat, noted that the spying occurred under the previous administration, that of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. And while he said the state would "take seriously" possible threats to public safety, O'Malley vowed not to allow police to monitor groups when there is no evidence of wrongdoing.
The governor said his administration "does not and will not use public resources to target or monitor peaceful activities where Maryland citizens are exercising their First Amendment rights."
The police measures, which involved the infiltration of activist groups by covert agents, also drew an expression of concern by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and a sharp rebuke by Maryland Common Cause, a government watchdog group. Cardin called for a "full accounting" of the police surveillance.
"All U.S. citizens enjoy the protection of the First Amendment to the Constitution," said Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The amendment protects 'the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.' Our nation cannot allow police activity that is intended to discourage dissent by Americans who may disagree with certain government policies."
Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of Maryland Common Cause, said the spying was "an abuse of the public trust, taxpayer money and resources."
"Politicizing the public safety responsibilities of state police is more than dangerous," O'Donnell said in a statement.
"It is astounding and very troublesome that law enforcement would brand as a 'security threat group' law-abiding people whose only offense was dissenting from Governor Ehrlich's views on the death penalty and the Iraq war and then proceed to waste 14 months monitoring them rather than pay attention to legitimate public safety issues," O'Donnell said.
An Ehrlich spokesman did not return phone messages yesterday afternoon.
The ACLU released 43 pages of state police summaries and computer logs Thursday - some with agents' names and paragraphs blacked out - that it obtained from the state attorney general's office through a lawsuit based on Maryland's Public Information Act.
The files depict a pattern of spying and surveillance over a 14-month period in 2005 and 2006. During that time, agents infiltrated 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.
Police entered the names of activists in a law enforcement database of people suspected of being terrorists or drug traffickers, the documents show. Police officials said they did not infringe on the protesters' freedom; the ACLU said that nothing in the documents indicated criminal activity or intent.
Many of the spies' reports seem innocuous. In one, an agent who attended a gathering of the Evans group noted that activists discussed the stance that a candidate for Baltimore County state's attorney might take on the death penalty.
Yesterday, Ehrlich said on WJZ-TV that he was "sympathetic" to the principle that police should not spy on groups when there is no evidence of wrongdoing.
But he added, "We pay state police to make decisions, and obviously they bring discretion with them to their jobs every day, so their job on a daily basis obviously is to weigh the relative value of intelligence they've received and to make decisions accordingly."
A governor or police chief risks being blamed for not doing his job if an activist "cell" or organization takes actions that put people at risk, Ehrlich said. People could ask, "'Why weren't you doing your job? Weren't you supposed to have intelligence operations out there to monitor this sort of situation?'" he said in the television interview.
Full probe urged
David Rocah, an ACLU attorney who worked with the activists to obtain the documents, said they were happy with O'Malley's promise.
But Rocah faulted the governor for not committing to a "full investigation and accounting of the surveillance that took place."
He also criticized O'Malley for not detailing safeguards that his administration would put in place to ensure that such spying doesn't happen again in Maryland.
"There needs to be binding, easily enforceable rules in place to prevent this from happening," Rocah said. "The federal regulations are good as far as they go, but they're not detailed enough."
Late yesterday, O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzesse said the governor intends to address all of the concerns of the ACLU. The administration did not have sufficient time after the files were released to respond fully yesterday, he said.
Max Obuszewski, a longtime Baltimore peace activist who was one of the protesters who had been monitored by the Maryland State Police, called O'Malley's pledge "impressive" but still had reservations and unanswered questions.
"It's presumably what we want to hear," Obuszewski said. "The proof, though, will be in the pudding."