Rounding up the unusual suspects

October 02, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA | JEAN MARBELLA,jean.marbella@baltsun.com

Maybe while the four undercover state troopers - identified in a report released yesterday only as "T1" through "T4" - were wasting their time spying on a few peaceniks, other members of their unit were gathering intel on the kinds of people who actually have some power and influence over our lives.

Maybe T7 was sent to infiltrate the Center Club. Who knows, maybe Ts12 through 20 were spread out to the corporate boxes at Ravens Stadium or Oriole Park. Surely a T or two could have slipped into the executive dining room of Constellation Energy and given us advance warning of the company's slice of the national credit crisis.

But no, according to a review of the Maryland State Police's spying activities. The groups that the Homeland Security and Investigation Division focused their efforts on were those dangerous sidewalk protesters who oppose the war and the death penalty.

They must number in, oh, the low two figures. They operate so secretively and with such hidden agendas that they advertise their meetings and issue reams of position papers. I suppose they do pose a major threat - to anyone who wants to walk down the street without seeing earnest people stamping Birkenstock-clad feet, waving signs and handing out fliers, printed single-spaced and sometimes on both sides.

Perhaps if the unit had been investigating the people who screwed up the financial markets, I'd be more inclined to look favorably on this spy game. But in my experience, these activists are dying for attention; call them, and they'll talk your ear off, invite you to any number of meetings and ceaselessly e-mail you. You need to "infiltrate" them as much as you need to sneak into a time-share presentation.

The review, conducted by former Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs at the request of Gov. Martin O'Malley and released yesterday, says that the state police investigative unit started spying on protest groups as possible threats to public safety.

It's comical on the face of it - really, these protesters are about as threatening as tofu - except for the utter disregard of these activists' civil liberties. That's never funny, particularly today, when the words "terrorist" and "national security" are thrown around to excuse any kind of activity that a government official wants to undertake without going through the usual legal channels.

We're not talking waterboarding here, or even wiretapping - so far as we know, that is. Sachs was careful to point out that he did not conduct a formal investigation and thus did not have the power to issue subpoenas or take testimony under oath. Still, he uncovered some disturbing practices. The state police, for example, created investigative files on the peace- and anti-death penalty activists in a computerized database, listing them as "terrorism" suspects and classifying their groups as possible "security threats."

For a suspected terrorist, Max Obuszewski certainly hides himself and his activities in plain sight. You can often find the Baltimore activist, who was investigated by the unit, parked outside the WYPR station on North Charles Street, still protesting the firing eight months ago of talk-show host Marc Steiner. He is perennially publicizing his latest stance. He invites attention. He wants to be arrested.

Sachs' report notes that, as one city police official told him, "everybody knows Max," and everyone also knows his protests are "known not to pose threats to public safety." And yet, the state police felt it needed to infiltrate Obuszewski's gatherings, as well as those of various other similarly non-violent groups.

The activists are quoted in the report as expressing outrage, but in characteristically nonthreatening ways: Asked what they would have done had they known an undercover officer was attending one of their meetings, they said they would have asked the trooper to leave, or "there would have been a discussion and a vote about whether to continue the meeting at all."

No cries of "kill the pig," in other words, or "burn down the house."

What's troubling is the mind set of the unit that is revealed - is it a coincidence that anti-death penalty activists were spied upon, but not anti-abortion groups? Both, after all, are protesting measures that currently are the law of the land, so aren't both equally threatening to the state?

The report closes with a document written by one of the undercover agents about a 2005 ceremony held at a sculpture garden on the Hopkins campus to commemorate the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki during World War II. The agent duly noted that the 11/2-hour ceremony included poetry readings, singing and speechifying, all under the watchful eye of uniformed university police.

"Rally participants," the agent wrote, "were not observed breaking any laws."

Exactly.

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