Home-grown spies

Our view: State Police unit overstepped its bounds

July 20, 2008

As revealed in a series of computer logs, the undercover operations of a Maryland State Police unit are an embarrassing assault on citizens' rights to peacefully protest the actions of their government. Hundreds of hours spent spying on a bunch of peaceniks and death penalty opponents who meet to drum up support for their causes? The idea that these groups, identified in state documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, were potential threats would be laughable if it wasn't scary. What's truly chilling is that the same State Police unit behind these misguided operations is still in business.

As the ACLU has shown all too clearly, domestic spying is not solely the preoccupation of the Bush White House. The Maryland branch sought government documents after learning about surveillance work by a "Baltimore intel unit," information revealed in the criminal prosecution of a peace group. In 2005 and 2006, members of the Homeland Security and Intelligence Division dispatched undercover agents to meetings and events of the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, an anti-war group, the Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans, a death row inmate.

What's egregious, and potentially unlawful, is that they monitored the groups even though they observed no illegal or criminal activity by them. Investigators kept detailed notes about the political views and activities of individuals. A serious consequence of this unchecked, unwarranted surveillance is that the names of innocent Marylanders may have been entered into a slew of federal law enforcement databases, including a drug trafficking one.

The surveillance took place under a previous administration. And while Gov. Martin O'Malley and State Police Superintendent Terence B. Sheridan said the police units haven't interfered with citizens who lawfully exercise their free speech rights, they should have condemned this operation as a huge waste of taxpayer dollars. They also should investigate how the surveillance began and why it continued so long in the absence of any criminal activity.

The State Police should make public data on any other group its spied on unnecessarily. And every effort should be made to remove from federal databases the names of innocent individuals targeted by the police unit. Their reputations have been needlessly sullied.

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