Sunday, July 20, 2008
Undercover Maryland State Police officers repeatedly spied on peace activists and anti-death penalty groups in recent years and entered the names of some in a law-enforcement database of people thought to be terrorists or drug traffickers, newly released documents show.
The files, made public yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, depict a pattern of infiltration of the activists' organizations in 2005 and 2006. The activists contend that the authorities were trying to determine whether they posed a security threat to the United States. But none of the 43 pages of summaries and computer logs - some with agents' names and whole paragraphs blacked out - mention criminal or even potentially criminal acts, the legal standard for initiating such surveillance.
State police officials said they did not curtail the protesters' freedoms.
The spying, detailed in logs of at least 288 hours of surveillance over a 14-month period, recalls similar infiltration by FBI agents of civil rights and anti-war groups decades ago, particularly under the administration of President Richard M. Nixon.
David Rocah, a staff attorney for the ACLU in Baltimore, said at a news conference yesterday that he found it "stupefying" that more than 30 years later, the government is still targeting people who do nothing more than express dissent.
"Everything noted in these logs is a lawful, First Amendment activity," Rocah said. "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 or drug dealers."
The ACLU obtained the documents from the state attorney general's office through a Maryland Public Information Act lawsuit.
Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, said in a statement yesterday that the department "does not inappropriately curtail the expression or demonstration of the civil liberties of protesters or organizations acting lawfully."
"No illegal actions by state police have ever been taken against any citizens or groups who have exercised their right to free speech and assembly in a lawful manner," Sheridan said. "Only when information regarding criminal activity is alleged will police continue to investigate leads to ensure the public safety." [Mark Godsey]