Brushing aside assurances from the Maryland State Police that troopers will never again secretly monitor and collect information on peaceful protest groups, state lawmakers and Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration are moving ahead with a plan to outlaw such tactics and will push for legislative action at hearings today.
The discredited state police operation, revealed last summer after the American Civil Liberties Union sued for information on it, included troopers in the agency's homeland security division disguising their identities to e-mail organizers and attending meetings. Then, using a computer software program that was intended as a way to forward security-threat information to the federal government, the troopers categorized groups and more than 50 individuals as involved in "terrorism."
State police said the surveillance - which civil liberties groups have decried as spying - was born out of concern over possible violence at executions scheduled in early 2005. The monitoring continued for at least 14 months and expanded from death penalty opponents to war protesters to groups as varied as the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter and Equality Maryland, a gay rights organization.
Soon after the operation came to light in July, Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, the state police superintendent, insisted such an operation would not happen again. Sheridan, who was not in charge of the agency during the surveillance, said he rewrote the policy to prevent similar tactics without his approval.
"Colonel Sheridan has said he believes his policy addresses those concerns," said Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman.
But Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat sponsoring one of the "anti-spying" measures, said police need "an explicit guide" laid out in state law.
"Having them write their own rules is not the solution," Raskin said. "That was the problem."
O'Malley, a Democrat, also has his own plan - one that the ACLU of Maryland said is too vague and does not go far enough to protect the public. His legislation is based on a recommendations of former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, who researched the program at the governor's request and concluded it was dismissive of civil rights.
Over the summer, the governor said he believed that the state police could make the needed changes on their own. As the legislative session began in January, he said he had decided upon a legal remedy to underline the importance of the issue.
"Without it being codified in law, future administrations and future superintendents would be able to change internal policies," O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.
ACLU leaders - and some Democratic lawmakers - say it is clear to them that the surveillance was driven by the Republican former governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. On his radio show, Ehrlich has said he knew nothing of the state police program in question.
Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat and lead sponsor of the House anti-spying bill, blamed the Ehrlich administration. Troopers, she said, "don't just decide on their own to spy on a group because they have nothing else to do."
But a review of the documents that state police have given to lawmakers portrays not a sophisticated surveillance operation, but rather a disorganized collection of blank pages, haphazard Internet research and perplexing descriptions.
Equality Maryland was categorized as "terrorism - pro-life" and "terrorism - anti-war." Amnesty International was suspected of the crime of "civil rights."
The DC Anti-War Network, which protested the Iraq war, was labeled a "white supremacist group" and also labeled with six kinds of "terrorism" - several of which would seem to contradict each other.
Sachs concluded that there was little value in the information gathered by state police and also determined that the collection did not amount to a concerted effort to chronicle the activities of political groups.
Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller also held harmless the former state police superintendent, who worked for Ehrlich.
Miller, a Democrat from Southern Maryland, called Col. Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, a Republican and a former Southern Maryland delegate, "a true patriot."
"If he had any role or position in this, I'm confident that he did it on advice of subordinates who convinced him it was in the interest of the state of Maryland," Miller said.
In the Sachs report, Maj. Jack Simpson, who headed the bureau that included homeland security, was identified as the most likely driving force. Edward T. Norris, who preceded Hutchins as state police superintendent, said Simpson was a "highly competent, smart guy," who was also ambitious.
Norris said intelligence gathering is "a specific art" but said the homeland security division that he started shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, "never would have been interested in the kinds of things they were looking at" under Hutchins.
Find more about the surveillance probe at baltimoresun.com/spying