ACLU of Maryland Files Lawsuit to Obtain Information Related to Government Spying on Peace Groups

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
June 12, 2008 12:00 am

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BALTIMORE – Concerned that the Maryland State Police (MSP) are hiding information related to surveillance of local peace activists and groups, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland today filed a lawsuit against the MSP for refusing to disclose a record in response to a public information request. Following a disturbing national trend of government surveillance of political and religious groups, the Maryland ACLU has been seeking information from federal and state agencies to learn whether such surveillance has happened in the Free State.

“Public information acts are a critically important tool for ensuring that all levels of government adhere to the limits on their power,” said David Rocah, Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. “And government claims that secrecy is required frequently turn out, when tested in court or against facts later discovered, to be totally unwarranted and based on fear of embarrassment rather than legitimate needs.”

The case, filed today in Baltimore City Circuit Court, is brought on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee, Jonah House, Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, Baltimore Emergency Response Network, and several individual plaintiffs. 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 Maryland ACLU helped the groups file requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with several federal agencies, including the NSA, in August of 2006. Identical requests were also filed under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) with six state agencies, including the MSP. The requests sought any documents relating to “any monitoring, surveillance, questioning, interrogation, investigation, infiltration, and/or collection of information relating to these organizations or their members,” among other things.

“It seems essential in these times to evaluate, check and challenge individuals and systems by nonviolent means when the government strays from the laws of the land,” said Sister Ardeth Platte, a Dominican Nun with Jonah House, a faith-based Resistance Community dedicated to non-violence. “Surveillance of citizens and peace groups who attempt to hold government accountable to what is right and just, to what are laws of the land, must be stopped. Present and future generations suffer more and more under a government that deprives them of basic human and civil rights rendered under democratic principles.”

In February 2007, the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that it had responsive records concerning the AFSC, Jonah House, and Baltimore Emergency Response Network, but to date has not determined what records to release. In April 2007, the NSA acknowledged that it had records relating to surveillance of the AFSC, and several individual requestors, in connection with protests at the NSA from 2003–2005, but to date has not disclosed any of the records, claiming that a backlog of prior requests takes precedence. And in May 2008, the Department of Defense acknowledged that the Department of the Air Force had responsive documents, and forwarded the request to the Air Force for a determination of which documents to release.

The Baltimore City Police Department asserted in January 2007 that it had no responsive records. The Department also specifically asserted that the “Baltimore Intel Unit” referred to in the documents obtained during the criminal trespass trial was not a unit of the Baltimore City Police Department.

In January 2007, the MSP acknowledged that it had a responsive record which “was compiled as part of a law enforcement investigation.” However, the MSP has refused to disclose the record, claiming, without any explanation, that its release “would disclose the identity of a confidential source and would also disclose investigative techniques and procedures of the Maryland State Police.” The MSP has also refused a request to provide an appropriately redacted version of the record, or any details that would justify any of the claimed exemptions to the MPIA’s duty to disclose. After fruitlessly waiting for some time in the hopes that the NSA disclosures might shed light on the nature of the Maryland State Police document, the groups have filed suit to compel disclosure of an appropriately redacted document from the MSP.

The MSP’s response leaves many important questions unanswered. Why is the state police maintaining information on peaceful protestors? What kind of investigation led to the record’s creation? Why are confidential sources being used in relation to peaceful protest groups? “It may be that there are innocuous answers to these questions,” said W. Clinton Pettus, Director of the American Friends Service Committee for the Mid-Atlantic Region. “But Marylanders are entitled to see what the real answers are, and not simply take a governmental official’s word that nothing improper has occurred.”

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Kit Pierson and Richard Rinkema from the Washington, DC office of the law firm Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe LLP, donating their time pro bono, and ACLU of Maryland staff attorney David Rocah.

Click here to read today’s legal filing and related documents:

Click here to read ACLU-MD’s original FOIA and MPIA requests:

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