Unanswered Questions Remain about Widespread Police Spying – John Duda

Unanswered Questions Remain about Widespread Police Spying – John Duda

Sachs, to his credit, broadly condemns these practices, writing that "the surveillance undertaken here is inconsistent with an overarching value in our democratic society‚ the free and unfettered debate of important public questions."

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When 43 pages of documents detailing extensive surveillance and infiltration by the Maryland State Police of nonviolent activists were released this July, many people were left wondering: just how extensive was this police operation? Unfortunately, we're still waiting to have many of the most important questions answered.

When the ACLU of Maryland succeeded in obtaining, through a Maryland Public Information Act request, these 43 pages, the State Police immediately went into damage control mode. Maryland State Police Superintendent Terrence Sheridan claimed that the surveillance had begun in March 2005 and was prompted by the supposed "security threats" that might arise in the context of the planned execution of Vernon Evans. Almost as quickly, the ACLU struck back with evidence of their own, releasing information contradicting the official police story, namely an email message from January 2005 indicating that the same undercover agent who would later in the year be infiltrating meetings of the Campaign to the End the Death Penalty was already working on gathering police intelligence at political talks organized by Red Emma's Bookstore/Coffeehouse. With this specific bit of evidence in hand, and the suspicion that the MSP was seeking to hide the true extent of political surveillance in Maryland, the ACLU (on September 30th) filed a follow-up MPIA request, this time on behalf of 32 groups, including the Baltimore Algebra Project, the International Socialist Organization, the Maryland Coalition to Stop the BGE Rate Hikes, and the Maryland Green Party, all seeking to find out whether or not the state police were spying on them as well.

At the same time, Governor O'Malley appointed former Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs to investigate the embarrassingly wrong-headed police procedures brought to light in the released documents. Sachs, to his credit, broadly condemns these practices, writing that "the surveillance undertaken here is inconsistent with an overarching value in our democratic society‚ the free and unfettered debate of important public questions." His claims that the officers involved truly believed they were really engaged in protecting the public good rather than clamping down on dissent are hard to believe. While Sachs did a good job of tracing out some of the specifics of the operation, his report leaves many questions unanswered: without the power to subpoena testimony, higher officials in the MSP chain of command who refused to speak to Sachs are not implicated in his report. Furthermore, the MSP had prior to March 2005 "decided to cast a relatively broad net in the 'protest group' area, seeking to learn more about the activist community in general." The parameters of Sachs' investigation were such that he considered the investigation of this broader police fishing expedition to be none of his concern. Finally, because Sachs was charged with investigating the MSP, his report doesn't fully elaborate how much of the information gathered by this one agency was shared with other agencies at the municipal, state, and federal level - a highly likely possibility given MSP's miscategorization of pacifists as "terrorists" in their computer databases coupled with the existence of so-called "fusion centers" designed to facilitate, with little oversight, multi-jurisdictional anti-terrorism investigations.

In a further twist, the MSP recently sent out letters to about 53 area activists informing them that they were "suspected of involvement in terrorism but to whom MSP has no evidence whatsoever of any involvement in violent crime." The letter informed these people that they can make an appointment to come in and view their files before the MSP deletes them, since it's now painfully apparent that these files should never have been kept in the first place. Yet despite all the bad publicity generated by the MSP's Orwellian tactics, they still have the gall to deny anyone viewing their record pre-destruction the ability to make a copy or to be accompanied by legal counsel.

While there's much that we still don't know, two things are certain. First, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg regarding police spying in Maryland. And second, if we're ever going to find out, it's going to take continued pressure on police agencies and lawmakers to ensure timely and complete compliance with our demands for disclosure.

Editors notes:
1) The Chesepeake Climate Action Network was also targeted.
2) Amidst increasing pressure from the ACLU and the public, the state did cave and started letting people copy their files and have legal counsel present.

For more information go to http://aclu-md.org/