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Bad Idea: Spying on Peaceful Activists and Labeling Them as Terrorists

William Kuhns,
Washington Legislative Office
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October 27, 2008

Recently, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s office released a report by former Maryland Attorney General, Stephen H. Sachs, detailing the 14-month surveillance of peaceful anti-war and anti-death penalty groups by the Maryland State Police (MSP). On October 7, 2008, the Maryland State Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the Sachs’ report. Needless to say, the hearing was a barn burner. The committee heard testimony, questioned witnesses, and exhausted the audience for nearly four hours.

The witnesses and committee seemed to agree that the MSP acted ineptly and that some form of regulation or statute needs to be enacted to govern this kind of surveillance and to protect the public from further abuse. Of course, to every rule there’s an exception and this hearing had a big one. His name was Thomas Hutchinson.

Hutchinson is the former Superintendent of the MSP. Superintendent Hutchinson vigorously defended spying on peaceful protest groups. He even claimed it was acceptable and even necessary to continue the surveillance after the field officer repeatedly reported the groups posed no threat to the public. His only justification was that these groups are full of “fringe” people and that sometimes bad people use these groups as vehicles to carry out their plots against the public. (This logic is utterly preposterous and nearly everyone but Hutchinson recognized it as such.)

Superintendent Hutchinson agreed with the rest of the witnesses on one thing; he agreed that mislabeling at least 53 peaceful activists as terrorists and placing them in both state and federal databases was wrong and needs to be fixed. Later, David Rocah of the ACLU of Maryland pointed out that we still don’t know exactly how many people were mislabeled as terrorists — or as something else — and that the MSP must keep searching its databases to identify and remove anyone who should not be in them.

Fortunately the current MSP Superintendent, Terrence Sheridan agrees with Rocah and has started sending letters to the improperly labeled activists to notify them of their situation. During his testimony, Sheridan also said he intends to comply with all four recommendations made in the Sachs’ report. That’s good news.

Of course, there are still huge problems that need to be addressed. Both Rocah and ACLU policy counsel Mike German articulated several of them in their excellent testimony.

Rocah was particularly concerned with determining whether any other people may be in the database inappropriately. He also expressed anxiety about the activists’ information being shared with federal agencies like the NSA, which Hutchinson implied may have already happened. This is disturbing because if the information moved into an unknown database it will be very hard to track down and purge. The fact that we may never be able to get the names of these activists out of every database shows just how much reform these systems need and should be alarming to all Americans.

Removing the activists’ information from every database is incredibly important both for the activists personally and for public safety. German, a 16-year veteran of the FBI, testified that inaccurate information in these databases makes the public less secure because the databases are easily corrupted, and identifying real threats becomes more difficult.

German went on to criticize the program in general: He cited the cost of running a 14-month surveillance program on groups the MSP knew were peaceful as a gross misallocation of resources. According to him, legitimate threats to public safety exist, and the government shouldn’t waste taxpayer money spying on groups that clearly aren’t a threat.

All things considered, the hearing was a step forward in the fight to protect and restore the civil liberties of all Marylanders. It was very positive to hear that the MSP plans on complying with the Sachs’ recommendations. However, as Rocah pointed out, there is still a lot more to do to ensure the citizens of Maryland are not subjected to these kinds of abuses again.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this blog post listed the date of the hearing as October 7, 2009. That was (obviously) incorrect. The correct date is October 7, 2008. Thanks Jesse.

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