Maryland State Police Surveillance of Advocacy Groups Exposed
by Kay Guinane, 8/5/2008
On July 17, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland disclosed documents revealing that state police engaged in covert surveillance of local peace and anti-death penalty groups for over a year during the administration of former Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich (R). In response, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said he might support a Justice Department investigation into why this surveillance occurred. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff requesting a full account of the surveillance actions and further information regarding the funds used.
The ACLU of Maryland was concerned that the Maryland State Police were hiding information on the surveillance of local peace activists. On June 12, it filed a lawsuit against the state police for refusing to disclose records in response to a public information request. Plaintiffs include the American Friends Service Committee, Jonah House, Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, Baltimore Emergency Response Network, and several individuals.
A June ACLU press release states, "Documents disclosed during a prosecution for disorderly conduct and trespass against two individuals arrested at a protest at the National Security Agency (NSA) in October 2003 indicated that a 'Baltimore Intel Unit' had been monitoring protestors from these groups as they assembled and traveled to the NSA for a protest in July 2004. In order to discover the identity of this 'intel unit,' and why the unit was monitoring their peaceful protest activities, the groups filed requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with several federal agencies, including the NSA, in August of 2006."
The press release describes the 43 pages of summaries and computer logs. Maryland State Police's Homeland Security and Intelligence Division sent agents to infiltrate the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, a peace group, the Coalition to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans. The surveillance continued even though there were no reports of illegal activity and consistently indicated that no violent protests were being planned. Reports of the surveillance were also sent to at least seven federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The press release went on to say, "Agents from the Division monitored private organizing meetings, public forums and events held in several churches, as well as anti-death penalty rallies outside the state's SuperMax facility in Baltimore and in Lawyer's Mall in Annapolis."
The ACLU of Maryland will be filing additional requests under the Maryland Public Information Act. It called on activists across the state to find out if their organizations have been spied on. The ACLU will work with groups that are willing to provide the names of key individuals who could be listed in surveillance records to document the full extent of any surveillance and will ensure that the targets have an opportunity to review the files that relate to them and have those files purged.
The Washington Post reported, "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."
Reaction to news of the surveillance was swift and negative. Hoyer's statement said, "While it is the job of law enforcement to protect the public and keep the peace, it is difficult to understand how non-violent peace activists and opponents of the death penalty constituted a threat to public safety. We need to understand why the monitoring of these and other citizens took place — and whether any federal funds were used in support of this program." Thompson said, "The politically motivated surveillance of dissident domestic groups that have neither a link to terrorism nor promote violence is ... a deplorable use of taxpayer funds." In addition, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) announced an investigation to be led by civil rights attorney Stephen H. Sachs, working with State Attorney General Douglas Gansler and state police chief Col. Terrence Sheridan. The 30-60 day review is aimed at developing new intelligence guidelines.