Surveillance saga continues

Our view : State police owe victims, public a fuller accounting of their misguided actions

there's more to this spying business than the agency has divulged


January 09, 2009

It's the story that won't go away. Like peeling back layers of an onion, almost every month we learn more about the Maryland State Police's indefensible program to collect information on peaceful activist groups. Also much like an onion, the whole thing stinks.

Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, state police superintendent, has acknowledged that the surveillance activities were wrong. But words must be matched by deeds, and his agency has been less than forthcoming about this unpleasant episode in its recent history.

It was troubling enough, when the story first broke over the summer, to learn that local activists had apparently been spied upon during protests at the National Security Agency. It was quickly revealed that far more was involved than keeping tabs on a handful of protesters at a few events.

A layer was peeled back in July, when the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland released documents revealing hundreds of hours of surveillance against anti-war and anti-death-penalty advocates during 2005 and 2006. Worse, dozens of activists were labeled as terrorists in law enforcement databases.

In October, activists discovered that the spy operation lasted longer than state police originally said, and that environmentalists were also targeted. November's revelation was that the spying continued through 2007 and possibly later.

Now, the latest: An even wider variety of organizations, from Amnesty International to a group fighting Maryland utility rate increases, apparently had their activities monitored and documented. The ACLU has obtained many documents through the state public information act and lawsuits, and may make them available to the public soon.

A report by former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs concluded that state police were "misguided" and recommended changes, including such common-sense steps as a ban on surveillance of activist groups in the absence of serious suspicion of a crime. Colonel Sheridan, to his credit, has pledged to adopt the recommendations. Legislation in the General Assembly session is sure to follow soon.

A good first move, though, would be for the state police to put an end to the dribble of revelations over the past seven months by fully opening up the files on its misbegotten surveillance program, rather than releasing highly redacted documents that present more questions than answers. The ACLU has done yeoman work, but it should not have to continue to sue a state agency for information that the public - or at the very least, the victims of improper spying - rightly deserves.

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