Police spied on activists through '07

Protest groups say they haven't gotten the full story from state

November 20, 2008|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,liz.kay@baltsun.com

Documents released yesterday show that state police spying of nonviolent protest groups took place in 2007, more than a year after law enforcement officials said much-criticized surveillance of death-penalty activists had ended.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the spying to light this year, also determined that some political activists who appear never to have set foot in Maryland were included in databases that list them as potential terrorists.

Activists say they still aren't getting complete information from state police about 53 people identified as possible terrorists during a covert operation in 2005 and 2006, despite pledges of cooperation from the O'Malley administration. They say they'll keep demanding documents and are considering legal action.

"We are nowhere near full disclosure of what they did, why they did it and who they did it to," ACLU attorney David Rocah said.

The spying was first disclosed this summer, after the civil liberties group obtained documents revealing surveillance of anti-death-penalty activists and peace protesters.

Police had no evidence of potential illegal acts by the protesters, which is the legal standard for launching such an investigation. Names of protesters were entered into a terrorist database that was shared with other agencies.

A review commissioned by Gov. Martin O'Malley determined that police disregarded the civil rights of protesters. The investigation recommended that the 53 spying targets receive the reports that state police kept on them, and that the records then be destroyed.

But the ACLU said yesterday that the heavily redacted documents leave out basic information and other details that could reflect unfavorably on police.

"It's information that is potentially politically embarrassing ... but it is not legally withheld," Rocah said.

The civil liberties group was able to compare less-heavily redacted documents released in July to those given to activists more recently.

State police spokesman Greg Shipley said the agency "redacted information that may relate to police techniques or other investigative issues."

A key point of contention is whether the spying operation extended beyond anti-death-penalty activists. Documents show that state police kept records on members of environmental groups, animal-rights proponents, peace activists and some organizations not operating in Maryland.

Shipley said that the spying program did not extend beyond groups opposed to the death penalty, although he acknowledged that police occasionally monitored other people.

He said some information about activists gathered outside the 14-month period beginning in 2005 was triggered by specific incidents and was not part of the more thorough death-penalty operation.

"It is intelligence information and actions that are in response to proposed events or actions that led to concern on the part of police for issues of public safety," Shipley said.

For example, an undercover trooper attended one meeting of Frederick Progressive Action Coalition in 2005 and reported that no criminal activity was planned, he said. Earlier, a member of that group had been found at a biotechnology conference wearing a stolen hotel employee's uniform, Shipley said.

"That prompted concern about future action," he said. "This is not spying, as the ACLU would have people believe. This is police in this situation acting on valid law enforcement concern and working to protect the public safety."

However, Rocah pointed out that troopers created files on the two members of the Fredrick group before the hotel incident, and thus the episode could not have served as the basis of the infiltration.

"It's patent nonsense, contradicted by the facts in their own files," he said.

Rocah and other officials called on O'Malley to do more to ensure these documents are released.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor has worked with state police to allow people to access records with counsel present but referred other questions to state police.

A dozen of the 53 spying subjects called for more transparency at a news conference yesterday.

"I challenge the state to come clean on what they actually have on us," said Nadine Bloch, a Takoma Park resident who, according to her file, creates giant puppets for protests.

Members of national groups that were included on the list said they were surprised because they have never attended events in this state.

"I've never been to Maryland. I'm not an anarchist or an environmental extremist," Nancy Kricorian, a coordinator for the New York office of Code Pink, an organization of women advocating for peace, said in a telephone interview.

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