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Maryland Police Covertly Spy on Peace, Anti-Death-Penalty Groups

Documents uncovered by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland show that undercover officers from the Maryland State Police infiltrated peace activist and anti-death-penalty groups to monitor their activities. The documents were publicly released after the ACLU obtained them from the state attorney general’s office through a lawsuit based on Maryland’s Public Information Act.

The spying, which was detailed in logs that show a 14-month period that involved 288 hours of surveillance, resulted in members of the groups having their names placed in a law-enforcement database of people thought to be terrorists or drug traffickers. The enrollment into that database occurred despite there being no indication of criminal activity or intent on the part of the protestors, between 2005 and 2006.

Agents from the state police’s Homeland Security and Intelligence Division covertly 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 prisoner). In addition to monitoring the groups’ organizational meetings, public forums, and events in churches, the agents attended the groups’ rallies.

The state police went on the defensive after the documents were released. “No illegal activities by state police have ever been taken against any citizens or groups who have exercised their rights to free speech and assembly in a lawful manner,” said Col. Terrance B. Sheridan. “Only when information regarding criminal activity is alleged will police continue to investigate leads to ensure the public safety.”

The ACLU says the documents show legal activity on the part of the organizations, but the surveillance continued. “Everything noted in these logs is lawful, First Amendment activity,” said David Rocah, an ACLU staff attorney in Baltimore. “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 and drug dealers.”

Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland, noted in a letter to Gov. Martin O’Malley that state police had “Recorded extensive information about specific individuals and groups, including describing their political outlook, whether they were articulate, what political activities they were engaged in, and attended private planning meetings in a covert capacity.”

That activity is in step with the federal government’s stance since the September 11, 2001, attacks. Since then, the government has “actively encouraged” local police agencies to gather intelligence and to compile information that may not be connected to criminal activity, says Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now an ACLU public attorney.

O’Malley says 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.” He vowed not to follow the surveillance policies that his predecessor allowed.

“It’s presumably what we want to hear,” said Max Obuszewski, a peace activist whose name was placed in a drug trafficking database despite “not a scintilla of evidence” that he deserved to be on the list. “The proof, though, will be in the pudding.”

Sources: Baltimore Sun; Washington Post; The Examiner

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