Spying may have started earlier than police said

October 01, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

A Maryland State Police agent may have used an undercover alias to infiltrate a leftist Mount Vernon cooperative in January 2005 - two months before police say their secret monitoring of death-penalty activists began - according to documents released yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Red Emma's, a cooperatively run bookstore and coffee shop, is one of 32 organizations that filed records requests yesterday with state and local law enforcement agencies, wanting to know if they have been under surveillance. The requests were coordinated by the ACLU of Maryland as part of its broadening investigation into spying activity by state police.

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McGuire said after discovering the connection, Red Emma's contacted the ACLU of Maryland and asked for their help. "We're appalled by this," he said. "We want to find out the extent of their investigation. ... This is a clear indication that police were being used politically."

The artfully disheveled store, in an English basement on St. Paul Street, features left-leaning zines, free Internet and "Zapatista" coffee. The book section does not have a copy of the infamous Anarchist Cookbook, which has instructions for making explosives, though Red Emma's customers can purchase an actual cookbook by the same name. Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader is scheduled to speak this evening. With the exception of Red Emma's, the other entities that filed records requests yesterday are traditional activist groups, ranging from anti-abortion to anti-war protesters. Among them are the Humane League of Baltimore, the Maryland Coalition Against State Executions, Christian Peace Witness for Iraq and the Algebra Project.

Rocah said the ACLU was coordinating the mass public records request in order to understand the extent of the police's spying activity. "It will be interesting to see whether ... these groups were spied on as well, or whether they weren't spied on, in which case the [Maryland State Police] has some explaining to do about how they choose which groups to spy on."

Sheridan, the police superintendent, has said that he was "troubled" by the previously acknowledged surveillance but that police monitored death penalty activists out of concern that protests around two planned executions in 2005 might get violent.

According to records obtained by the ACLU, police 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.

Rocah said it was necessary to file individual records-requests for each of the additional 32 groups because when "you're seeking a document that is about you ... you have a greater right of access than general public does." Under Maryland's public information law, the state police have 30 days to respond to the requests.

Though ACLU officials said they had no information that police spying continued after 2006, several activists who are now ACLU clients said revelations of police surveillance on political activists could have a chilling effect on free speech in Maryland.

"If people are spied on, they'll become intimidated," said Jack Ames of Defend Life, a Baltimore-based anti-abortion group.

"We have a constitutional right to oppose government policy," said Jean Athey of Peace Action Montgomery, an anti-war group. "Illegal government spying is a very serious threat to democracy."

Also yesterday, ACLU of Maryland lobbyist Cindy Boersma said she has been talking to lawmakers about proposed legislation that would "prohibit spying and the compilation of ... intelligence dossiers on Marylanders."

The ACLU bills, drafts of which are currently being circulated among members of the General Assembly, would prohibit law enforcement officials from investigating "lawful First Amendment activities" or keeping records of people's political and social beliefs, Boersma said.

She said the ACLU was waiting to see Sachs' report before approaching Gov. Martin O'Malley for his support. O'Malley administration officials had considered postponing today's release of the report because of the recent Medevac crash that killed two state troopers, but Sheridan preferred to dispense with the matter as soon as possible, Sachs said.

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