Watching spies

Our view: More careful oversight may be needed

July 23, 2008

Should police be able to spy on our neighbors within limits? That's the challenging, post-9/11 question a committee of Maryland legislators will have to confront this fall as it investigates a wasteful, lengthy state police intelligence unit's surveillance of peace groups and death penalty opponents. The hearings should get to the bottom of how this unit operates, who it targets and if the right oversight policies are in place to protect Maryland citizens.

Since the 2005-2006 spying operation was disclosed by the American Civil Liberties Union last week, Gov. Martin O'Malley and Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, the state police superintendent, have assured Marylanders that police investigators aren't breaking the law and won't improperly launch surveillance against citizens who are exercising their constitutional right to freely speak and meet. But neither has made the case that new legislation is not needed to monitor and control the Homeland Security and Intelligence Division.

The records of the spying operation uncovered by the ACLU show that undercover officers monitored groups of peace activists and death penalty protesters for 14 months, accumulating no evidence of wrongdoing. The documents also indicate that some of those observed had their names entered in a law enforcement database of people suspected of being terrorists or drug traffickers.

The intelligence operation recalled episodes from another era when police trampled the rights of protesters and civil rights activists under the banner of pursuing communists, radicals and anarchists. Today, Americans are more worried than ever about the threat of real terrorists among them. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon demonstrated how terrorists could easily hide among us with little, if any, clues to the evil they were plotting.

The state police operation took place during the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has said he didn't know about it, and former police superintendent Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, who has declined to discuss it.

When the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee meets, perhaps as early as September, Mr. Hutchins should detail the policies and procedures under which the unit operated, for what purpose and who oversaw it. Colonel Sheridan should discuss the unit's mission today.

If lawmakers don't like what they hear, they should consider legislation to provide stronger oversight.

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