Spy games

Our view: Covert state police unit was an inexcusable exercise in spying that played on exaggerated fears of terrorism

October 02, 2008

The rights of free speech and assembly define who we are as Americans. They represent the founding principles of a democratic nation. And they should be respected and upheld and safeguarded not only by citizens but by the men and women charged with protecting them. Those fundamentals were completely lost on the members of a covert surveillance unit of the Maryland State Police, their supervisors and commanders.

The unit was a bunch of novice spies on an ill-formed mission who discovered pretty quickly that the peace groups and death penalty opponents they targeted had neither the history nor propensity for harm, violence or criminal activity. That should have ended their uncover gambit right then. But the operation went on for 14 months during 2005 and 2006, basically because there was no one to say, Eno ugh.

Shockingly, no one supervising the group, from lieutenants to a lieutenant colonel, gave any thought where it would lead, when it should stop or even if it was legal.

These are the core findings of an independent investigation of the unit by Stephen H. Sachs, a former state attorney general and U.S. attorney, and two state lawyers. Gov. Martin O'Malley requested the review after the American Civil Liberties Union discovered the presence of the spying unit through documents received in an unrelated lawsuit.

At the time, the idea of state police spying on citizens who were exercising their right to free speech and peaceful protests was chilling if also a bit comical. The targets weren't shadowy groups of mysterious strangers. They were death penalty opponents and anti-war activists whose key players regularly met in public, testified in Annapolis and were well known in the community, even to local police.

The Sachs report shows how ill-conceived and wrongheaded this mission was. The intention was to prepare for possible disturbances during the state's next execution. Undercover police work is essential in some criminal investigations, but the initial spying in this case quickly showed there was no cause for concern and no reason to continue it. The unit's reports from its undercover operative are filled with statements by surveillance subjects who insisted their protests be peaceful and nonviolent. The most provocative action discussed by one group was a plan to pin the photographs of soldiers killed in Iraq along the fence surrounding the White House.

Neither former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. nor the state police superintendent at the time, Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, agreed to be interviewed by the Sachs team. That's unconscionable. Mr. Hutchins has agreed to appear before a legislative committee next week, and we eagerly await his testimony.

But the 93-page Sachs report and its stack of accompanying documents should be required reading for civics classes, state police cadets and supervisors as a lesson in what not to do. It recommends the police identify the citizens who were spied on, let them review the material and then purge their files as a minimum first step toward undoing the wrongs committed in this case.

The report reaffirms citizens' right to speak freely and gather peacefully with whomever they want even as it lays out the ever present potential for bureaucratic inertia, abuse and waste. As Mr. Sachs rightly points out, taxpayer dollars would have been far better spent fighting real rather than imagined criminals.

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