A balance on spying

March 26, 2009|By Charles S. Faddis

Americans are never entirely comfortable with the business of intelligence. There is something about the covert collection of information - and the often unsavory aspects of how it is collected - that seems somehow at odds with the nature of our democracy and our republic. I consider that a very good thing. When the day comes that we do not think long and hard about how and why we collect clandestine intelligence, I suspect we will be well on our way to becoming another police state in a world that has far too many.

That said, our ambivalence and discomfort often cause us to act in an erratic and unproductive way in regard to our intelligence agencies. When threats seem far away and we feel safe, we tend to denigrate the contributions the members of these organizations make to our security and to place significant restrictions on their activities. Then, reflexively, in the aftermath of an attack or intelligence failure, we move to rapidly remove these restrictions and grant often unwarranted latitude and discretion.

What we need, obviously, is a more mature, even-handed and consistent approach, one that allows these agencies to work effectively, to safeguard the citizens of our nation and to do so within the bounds of the law and the requirements of a free, open society.

Before the Maryland General Assembly are two competing Senate bills (and their corresponding House bills) that clearly demonstrate the challenge of getting this balancing act right. Both bills grow out of the response to the Maryland State Police spying scandal. One, SB 256, would put in place statutory restrictions that would prevent any repetition of the abuses uncovered. But those restrictions are so extreme that the bill would likely cripple any use of undercover resources.

For example, SB 256 would prohibit police from performing any covert investigation without a written statement from the chief - including "specific, factual determinations ... that the use of the covert technique is justified" by "suspicion of a present or planned violation of the law." This restriction goes beyond what is needed to prevent the abuses uncovered in the state police spying controversy (such as long-term surveillance of activists well after lack of criminal activity was established and improper handling of information about the targets).

By contrast, SB 266, in company with new regulations put in place within the state police, would also prevent abuses but would allow the agency to retain the kind of flexibility a law enforcement organization needs to do its job. This is the bill supported by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Let me be clear. I am as outraged as anyone about the use of undercover officers to spy on peaceful, law-abiding organizations working within the structure of a democratic society to advance causes in which they believe deeply. I remember the actions of the FBI in attempting to smear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. There is no excuse for this kind of behavior.

I also know, however, from long years of experience abroad, that we remain in grave danger from international terrorism. Anyone who has concluded, based on the absence of a major attack in this country since 9/11, that the war is over and we are all safe is ignoring reality.

It will be a long time before this conflict ends, and it is very likely that we will pay a heavy price on our own soil before it does.

In short, while the state police have no business using undercover resources to snoop into the activities of death penalty opponents and environmental advocates, there remain any number of targets in Maryland against whom they should be using those resources. Handcuffing the state police now and then loosening those restraints the day after an attack on a chemical plant, nuclear plant or sports stadium is not the answer. The answer is to strike the right balance now and let the officers on whom we all depend do their jobs.

Charles S. Faddis, a Davidsonville resident, retired in May as head of the CIA's weapons of mass destruction terrorism unit. He is coauthor of the recently released book "Operation Hotel California." His e-mail is charlesfaddis@hotmail.com.

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