Spying vexes police chief

Md. superintendent says intent of action was rational, but it went on too long

Sun follow-up

July 26, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun Reporter

The Maryland State Police superintendent said yesterday that he is "troubled" by methods his agency used to infiltrate and monitor peace activists and anti-death-penalty groups and called the operation an exercise in poor judgment. But one of the police officials in charge of the surveillance called the work "important and straightforward."

Since the American Civil Liberties Union forced the release of documents this month revealing the spying operation, state and federal officials have been scrambling to find out why the Maryland State Police spent 14 months in 2005-2006 monitoring protesters despite the lack of evidence that they planned any illegal activity.

In a news conference yesterday, Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, who took charge of the force after the operation ended, revealed the results of an internal investigation into the spying and reiterated that such activities have not continued and will not be renewed.

However, he said the review found a "rational explanation" for the origin of the operation. Police officials at the time launched it out of concern about the possibility of violent protests around two planned executions in 2005, he said.

But Sheridan said it was "disconcerting" that the surveillance continued for so long even though agents found no evidence of planned criminal activity. He added that he did not believe the surveillance was illegal. Top state lawmakers, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, have decried the operation as a waste of resources and contrary to the constitutional right to free assembly.

"It shouldn't have gone on so long, and there's no reason for it," Sheridan said. He also said the tactics of the operation - agents secretly joined protest groups and spent 288 hours monitoring and recording their activities - were "very concerning to me."

Sheridan said he first learned about the surveillance operation "recently," though as Baltimore County police chief at the time he served on a the statewide homeland security committee and received briefings about potential security threats. O'Malley, as Baltimore mayor at the time, oversaw the city Police Department, which received several reports about the surveillance.

Sheridan named two assistant state police chiefs as having been involved in launching the operation. One of them, reached at home, defended the work.

"There's nothing to hide, to be quite honest with you," said Mark Gabriele, who retired in November 2005 as captain in charge of the homeland security and intelligence division. "I don't feel the state police did anything wrong."

Gabriele said that it is not unusual for any police department to collect information about what a protest group is planning to do so that officers can plan and respond appropriately.

"Collecting information about what you're up against is a normal process," he said. "It's very straightforward."

Asked why the operation continued for 14 months, Gabriele replied, "I'm not in a position to respond to that."

The other assistant chief overseeing the surveillance was Major John "Jack" Simpson of the special operations division. Simpson is now in the state police support services bureau.

Gabriele said he gave daily reports to his superior, a major in the state police homeland security bureau. "What the major did with that information, I haven't a clue," he said.The surveillance operation was revealed last week when the ACLU released 43 pages of state police summaries and computer logs that it had obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act lawsuit.

Under the direction of Simpson and Gabriele, Sheridan said, undercover agents secretly joined the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, a peace group; the Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty; and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans, a death row inmate.

David Rocah, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said Sheridan's remarks yesterday did "incredibly little to assuage our concerns or answer our questions." He did not attend the news conference, but an ACLU intern attended and took notes, he said.

"It's very troubling to hear the state police say they've done nothing illegal or improper," he said. "Sheridan's statements demonstrate just the opposite. He says the surveillance began because of fears of disturbances about Vernon Evans. ... He has not disclosed the slightest scintilla of evidence to give any basis for a fear that something would occur. Federal law exists to prevent what he is now saying is OK."

Rocah said state police had more questions to answer and also needed to purge records they gathered about the activists. He said the ACLU "would pursue every legal tool at our disposal" to make sure that happens.

The activity occurred during former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration when Thomas E. Hutchins was the head of the state police. Both Hutchins and Ehrlich have said the state police did nothing illegal.

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