This is where we are: Marylanders who exercised their rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, peacefully gathering to call for changes in law, were labeled “terrorists” by the Maryland State Police, and reported to federal databases that way.
Do you wonder why you get searched every time you fly? Remember that letter you wrote to your Congressman complaining about high taxes? Remember that phone conversation with your brother-in-law over whether either of you would serve in the military today, without the threat of a draft?
Remember that time you taught the Cub Scouts how to fold the flag?
All of these things used to thought of as patriotic participation in government by citizens. But not any more.
All of these things are protected under the First Amendment. But if you use those First Amendment rights, and you’re in Maryland, watch out.
The abuses of the system were discovered and exposed by the Maryland attorney general.
And if you don’t live in Maryland? That doesn’t make you safe. It only means your state’s attorney general has not investigated what the cops are doing.
Your vote on November 4 is important.
You can also vote in a poll at the Baltimore Sun, asking whether such surveillance is okay. (No, it’s not.)
The homeland security mania has invited some startling abuses of police power, but we have yet to hear of any more knuckle-headed than one in Maryland. There, the State Police are sheepishly tracking down 53 innocent people to let them know they were entered as suspected terrorists on state and federal databases — for the Orwellian offense of engaging in peaceful protest.
The citizens had merely joined gatherings opposed to the Iraq war and capital punishment. Yet they were listed as terrorists three years ago on criminal intelligence rolls. “On the contrary, the groups were determined not to violate the law,” Stephen Sachs, the former Maryland attorney general, took pains to point out in a blistering report concluding that the runaway program violated constitutional rights and federal regulations.
Legislative hearings this week added insult to injury. Thomas Hutchins, a former State Police superintendent, insisted that the program was a legitimate surveillance of “fringe people” he somehow divined as “those who wish to disrupt the government.” This is a chilling free-speech distinction not found in the Constitution. It should make any American wonder what else is out there in the way of misbegotten police programs.
The 300 hours of surveillance devoted to data-smearing outspoken citizens was aptly described in the report as “an instructive example of the abuses that can result when the mere invocation of ‘terrorism’ is understood to override constitutional protections.”
Promising reform to angry legislators, the Maryland police are scrambling not so much to apologize as to notify the 53 that they were falsely deemed terrorists and can inspect their files before the files are purged. The databases were originally intended for anti-drug intelligence, but were misused, officials explained, by zealous, “technologically challenged” commanders.
Constitutionally challenged, as well.
And, from the Baltimore Sun:
Our view: Covert state police unit was an inexcusable exercise in spying that played on exaggerated fears of terrorism
The rights of free speech and assembly define who we are as Americans. They represent the founding principles of a democratic nation. And they should be respected and upheld and safeguarded not only by citizens but by the men and women charged with protecting them. Those fundamentals were completely lost on the members of a covert surveillance unit of the Maryland State Police, their supervisors and commanders.
The unit was a bunch of novice spies on an ill-formed mission who discovered pretty quickly that the peace groups and death penalty opponents they targeted had neither the history nor propensity for harm, violence or criminal activity. That should have ended their uncover gambit right then. But the operation went on for 14 months during 2005 and 2006, basically because there was no one to say, Enough.
Shockingly, no one supervising the group, from lieutenants to a lieutenant colonel, gave any thought where it would lead, when it should stop or even if it was legal.
These are the core findings of an independent investigation of the unit by Stephen H. Sachs, a former state attorney general and U.S. attorney, and two state lawyers. Gov. Martin O’Malley requested the review after the American Civil Liberties Union discovered the presence of the spying unit through documents received in an unrelated lawsuit.
At the time, the idea of state police spying on citizens who were exercising their right to free speech and peaceful protests was chilling if also a bit comical. The targets weren’t shadowy groups of mysterious strangers. They were death penalty opponents and anti-war activists whose key players regularly met in public, testified in Annapolis and were well known in the community, even to local police.
The Sachs report shows how ill-conceived and wrongheaded this mission was. The intention was to prepare for possible disturbances during the state’s next execution. Undercover police work is essential in some criminal investigations, but the initial spying in this case quickly showed there was no cause for concern and no reason to continue it. The unit’s reports from its undercover operative are filled with statements by surveillance subjects who insisted their protests be peaceful and nonviolent. The most provocative action discussed by one group was a plan to pin the photographs of soldiers killed in Iraq along the fence surrounding the White House.
Neither former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. nor the state police superintendent at the time, Thomas E. “Tim” Hutchins, agreed to be interviewed by the Sachs team. That’s unconscionable. Mr. Hutchins has agreed to appear before a legislative committee next week, and we eagerly await his testimony.
But the 93-page Sachs report and its stack of accompanying documents should be required reading for civics classes, state police cadets and supervisors as a lesson in what not to do. It recommends the police identify the citizens who were spied on, let them review the material and then purge their files as a minimum first step toward undoing the wrongs committed in this case.
The report reaffirms citizens’ right to speak freely and gather peacefully with whomever they want even as it lays out the ever present potential for bureaucratic inertia, abuse and waste. As Mr. Sachs rightly points out, taxpayer dollars would have been far better spent fighting real rather than imagined criminals.