Spying lessons fall on deaf ears

July 19, 2008|By Gregory Kane

Why, shades of COINTELPRO!

OK, that was a cheap shot, a blow delivered way below the metaphorical belt. So that I make myself clear, I'll say it bluntly: The Maryland State Police spying on anti-war and anti-death penalty activists in 2005 and 2006 was an offense nothing like COINTELPRO.

Perhaps a brief history lesson is in order. Once upon a time in a happy land called America there lived a man named John Edgar Hoover. John was a patriot. He loved his country, especially after he was appointed director of the FBI.

By the 1950s, John was no longer a happy guy. There were people in his beloved America, he felt, who were out to ruin it. Communists. Socialists. Peace activists. Negroes.

John didn't like one Negro in particular: Martin Luther King Jr. John sent his agents to infiltrate and spy on communists, socialists, peace activists and those Negroes silly enough to think that the Constitution applied to them. John had his minions form the Counterintelligence Program - COINTELPRO for short - to infiltrate various groups.

For some of the black groups, John ordered his agents not only to infiltrate but to disrupt and neutralize. In addition to King, John's favorite target was the Black Panther Party. John's myrmidons used agents provocateurs and informants to create dissension within Panther ranks. Soon there were two Panther factions at war with one another. One eventually became the Black Liberation Army, an organization dedicated to killing cops.

If there's one moral to the little tale told above, one lesson to be learned, it's this: The FBI practically created the Black Liberation Army.

Perhaps that's the price we pay when government agencies go overboard.

What state police agents did to activists a few years ago doesn't quite carry the stench of COINTELPRO, but what they did still stinks. I'm sorry, there's really no kind way to put this.

The anti-war and anti-death penalty activists broke no laws. In fact, they were engaging in constitutionally protected activity. Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. Terrence B. Sheridan didn't address that issue in a statement he released, which Sun reporter Nick Madigan quoted in his article yesterday. That quote should be repeated.

"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's statement reads. "Only when information regarding criminal activity is alleged will police continue to investigate leads to ensure the public safety." Sheridan also said that the state police do "not inappropriately curtail the expression or demonstration of the civil liberties of protesters or organizations acting lawfully."

Elana Russo, a state police spokeswoman, said that Sheridan would have no further comment on this matter. I know Sheridan from the days when he was the chief of the Baltimore County Police Department. I know he takes a dim view of police misconduct and police who abuse the rights of citizens. Such cops do not make Sheridan's day.

Much as I sympathize with Sheridan's plight - having this mess dumped in his lap - I have to say that whether police acted illegally isn't the issue. The issue is a U.S. Constitution specifically worded so as to prevent government from poking its nose into the lives of citizens without just cause.

Sheridan kind of gave an assurance that the kibosh has been put on this kind of thing. But Gov. Martin O'Malley was more direct in a statement he released yesterday.

"While these events happened in 2005 and 2006 under the previous administration, the Maryland State Police, under the O'Malley-Brown Administration, does not and will not use public resources to target or monitor peaceful activities where Maryland citizens are exercising their First Amendment rights. The State Police and other law enforcement agencies have an obligation to take seriously and investigate all potential threats to public safety consistent with state and federal law. ... But where there is no evidence of a potential public threat, illegal activity or criminal wrongdoing, all investigatory or intelligence gathering activities shall cease."

Supporters of former Gov. Robert Ehrlich will accuse O'Malley of playing the "blame Ehrlich" game again.

Blame away, governor. You're right. The person responsible for this government abuse of power is Ehrlich. He should have known, and he should have stopped it.

It's only in the military where the bad stuff settles at the bottom.

This is government, and in government, the bad stuff settles at the top.

gregory.kane@baltsun.com

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