The American Civil Liberties Union first uncovered documents in July of 2008 showing that the Homeland Security and Intelligence Division of the Maryland State Police infiltrated non-threatening political protest groups and spied on them for at least 14 months. The targets included peace activists and opponents of the death penalty, according to intelligence records the civil liberties group obtained after a battle with state officials who resisted a request for two years. Police spent hundreds of hours conducting surveillance, the records showed. Undercover agents trolled the Internet listservs of groups such as the Coalition to End the Death Penalty using bogus e-mail addresses and screen names, attended private organizing meetings and monitored events held at churches. The spying persisted while case notes from the infiltrators didn’t indicate that any violent protests or other illegal activity was occurring or being planned. A longtime anti-violence organizer in the Baltimore area, Max Obuszewski, inexplicably wound up in a law enforcement database used for storing and sharing information about high-level drug traffickers. Obuszewski was listed there under the categories “terrorism – anti-government” and “terrorism – anti-war protesters.” Among other things, surveillance logs described a 2005 meeting he had with a U.S. congressman to discuss the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. “For undercover police officers to spend hundreds of hours entering information about lawful political protest activities into a criminal database is an unconscionable waste of taxpayer dollars and does nothing to make us safer from actual terrorists or drug dealers,” a staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland said at the time. Gathering and sharing mountains of questionably useful intelligence between law enforcement agencies became a priority after the 9/11 hijackings when the nation learned that crucial information about the movement of terrorists planning the attacks wasn’t transmitted to those in a position to stop them. The controversy in Maryland illustrates what can happen when police zealously seek to prove they won’t make such mistakes again. Intelligence reports containing the names of innocent Americans were shared not only with city and county police departments in Maryland but also the secret National Security Agency, which has faced its own criticism for engaging in warrantless domestic wiretapping. The ACLU argued when the story first broke that the tactics were illegal, even under guidelines loosened after Sept. 11 that made it easier for authorities to observe individuals and groups for the purposes of preventing terrorist attacks. If the surveillance activity was legal, law enforcement couldn’t retain documents generated from it unless the material showed potential criminal or terrorist activity, civil liberties attorneys contended. Since the groups spied upon had no such ties, that should have made the conduct improper. However, some experts supported the Maryland State Police saying that while the behavior may have been perceived as distasteful, it was not unconstitutional and anti-terrorism investigators are better off being safe than sorry. “In a post-9/11 world, one of the main responsibilities of the Maryland State Police is to protect the citizens of Maryland from threats both foreign and domestic,” the department claimed in a press release. “No illegal actions by the state police have ever been taken against any citizens or groups who have exercised their right to free speech and assembly in a lawful manner.” But the department did not reveal at the time that its intelligence gathering operations were in fact much larger. Citing new documents, the Washington Post reported in early 2009 that the state police had also zeroed in on human rights activists from the esteemed Amnesty International listing its “civil rights” work in a police file as a possible “crime.” Intelligence gatherers also maintained a “voluminous” file on the “security threat” posed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and consumers battling a utility rate hike were targeted, too, according to the paper, as were citizen groups encouraging the establishment of bicycle lanes. The state’s governor, Martin O’Malley, called upon a past U.S. attorney from Maryland, Stephen Sachs, to review the police use of covert surveillance. In the 1960s, Sachs prosecuted two Catholic anti-war demonstrators, the Berrigan brothers, after they stormed a military draft office and destroyed government records. Sachs concluded in an Oct. 2008 report that there was no justification for labeling as “terrorists” innocent individuals engaged in anti-war and anti-death penalty activism and that no one he interviewed in the state police seemed aware that designating a citizen as such in an intelligence database “could cause serious harm to that person’s reputation, career, and standing in the community.” Perhaps more damning, the report stated that no one in the department’s chain of command “gave any thought whatever” to the possibility that such infiltration was inappropriate or attempted to justify the police spying by establishing reasonable suspicion of actual criminal activity among the activists. He wrote in the report: “I believe that [the Maryland State Police’s] surveillance intruded upon the ability of law-abiding Marylanders to associate and express themselves freely. … Such police conduct ought to be prohibited as a matter of public policy. … The Constitution does not confer unlimited power on government whenever those in power claim that our safety requires it.” Our own attempts to obtain records under Maryland’s Public Information Act showing how the state has used its federal homeland security grants didn’t make it too far. Officials responded that documents covering the years 2002 to 2005 were available only in hard-copy form and duplicating them would cost a considerable amount of money. “We are looking at approximately 16 file draws and another 18 file storage (bankers) boxes,” spokesman Ed McDonough told us in an e-mail. “The cost of copying these papers at 25 cents per page, plus the hours spent compiling and copying the records (we would have to hire temporary help as we have a very small grants management staff) would be very high indeed.” McDonough did tell us that digital records from 2006 and 2007 could be provided, but we never received them, nor did the state answer whether it maintained key oversight documents known as “site monitoring” reports.
G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.More by G.W. Schulz