ACLU of Maryland Lawsuit Uncovers Maryland State Police Spying Against Peace and Anti-Death Penalty Groups

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
July 17, 2008 12:00 am

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BALTIMORE – The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland today made public what it called “shocking” documents obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) lawsuit, revealing that the Maryland State Police (MSP) engaged in covert surveillance of local peace and anti-death penalty groups for over a year from 2005-2006. The organization expressed alarm at the incomprehensible spying revealed in 43 pages of summaries and computer logs, none of which refer to criminal or even potentially criminal acts, other than a few isolated references to plans for completely nonviolent civil disobedience.

ACLU of Maryland Executive Director Susan Goering blasted the program as “Un-American,” and said, “I fear that the documents released today, which the MSP wrongfully withheld for almost two years, may be only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.”

Goering continued: “The documents show that the MSP engaged in surveillance operations against peaceful activists similar to those abandoned in the 1970s with the end of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous COINTELPRO program. The ACLU will soon file additional requests under the Maryland Public Information Act to assess other activities and targets of the MSP’s ‘Homeland Security and Intelligence Division’ and will seek legislative reforms to ensure this kind of improper spying never happens again.”

“In our America, you should be able to attend a meeting about an issue you care about without having to worry that government spies are entering your name into a database used to track alleged terrorists and drug traffickers,” said David Rocah, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. “Americans have the right to peaceably assemble with others of a like mind and speak out about what they believe in. 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 documents obtained in the MPIA lawsuit reveal that for 14 months, MSP’s Homeland Security and Intelligence Division sent covert agents to infiltrate the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, a peace group, the Coalition to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans. The agents collectively spent at least 288 hours on their surveillance over the 14-month period. An agent also joined the electronic listserv of the CEDP under an alias using a spoof email address. Agents from the Division monitored private organizing meetings, public forums and events held in several churches, as well as anti-death penalty rallies outside the state’s SuperMax facility in Baltimore and in Lawyer’s Mall in Annapolis.

Despite the fact that reports from these events consistently said that activists acted lawfully at all times, the agents continued to recommend that the spying continue. Reports of this surveillance were sent to at least seven federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, including the National Security Agency, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Anne Arundel County police departments, and the state General Services police. Logs of the surveillance do not contain any reports of illegal activity, but rather consist entirely of reports on the groups’ and individuals’ lawful political activities.

The MSP’s Homeland Security and Intelligence Division also appears to have been working to specially track the activities of at least one individual activist, Max Obuszewski, who was entered into the “Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area” (HIDTA) database. That database, which is funded by the federal government, was intended to facilitate information sharing among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies engaged in drug interdiction. In December 2006, Congress modified the federal law to allow HIDTA funds to be used to assist in terrorism investigations as well. The entry for Mr. Obuszewski indicates that the “Primary Crime” linked to him in the database is “Terrorism-Anti Govern[ment], and the “Secondary Crime” is “Terrorism – Anti-War Protestors” – which are outlandish and blatantly false accusations.

Mr. Obuszewski, a client of the ACLU and a well known peace activist from Baltimore, is a lifelong pacifist. He engages in principled civil disobedience and strongly believes in and promotes nonviolence. Needless to say, there is nothing at all in any of the reports that links Mr. Obuszewski to any violent crime, much less drug trafficking or terrorism. Rather, all of his activities reported in the database concern lawful First Amendment activity, or non-violent civil disobedience, including a report about a meeting between activists and Rep. Benjamin Cardin in 2005 in which they asked him to support a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

“As a long-time peace activist who is familiar with our government’s past history of surveillance of dissidents, I surmised that groups involved in First Amendment activities would be watched and infiltrated after 9/11,” said Max Obuszewski, a client of the ACLU. “With the growth of the surveillance state after 9/11, it was evident that government agencies would come looking for groups and individuals engaged in peaceful protest activity and label them terrorists. So in all honesty, I was not surprised to be informed that I was wrongfully labeled a terrorist.”

In 1976, following revelations of the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), the Federal Bureau agreed to limit its spying to situations in which criminal conduct was suspected. But after 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft rewrote the guidelines so that “for the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities, the FBI is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public, on the same terms and conditions as members of the public generally.” Yet even under those draconian rules, much of the spying apparently conducted by the MSP would have been forbidden. In addition, the Ashcroft rules cautioned that “no information obtained from such visits shall be retained unless it relates to potential criminal or terrorist activity.” Clearly information has been retained by the MSP that does not relate to any unlawful acts.

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.

Go online to see the MSP documents and read further background about the case:

7.17.08 letter to Governor O’Malley
National ACLU Report: “No Real Threat”
Northern California Report on Government Monitoring of Political Activity
Exhibit A: Log indicating surveillance of BERN activities
1.10.07 letter from MSP
9.7.07 letter from ACLU to MSP
12.18.07 letter from MSP

To read ACLU-MD’s original FOIA and MPIA requests:

For more information about government spying on ordinary Americans:

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