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Md. peace groups infiltrated, released documents show

By The Associated Press
07.18.08

BALTIMORE — Undercover Maryland state police officers infiltrated meetings of peace and anti-death penalty groups for more than a year, according to documents released yesterday by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Police also included the name of at least one prominent peace activist in a federal database for tracking terrorists and drug dealers.

ACLU attorney David Rocah said the documents show state police violated federal laws prohibiting departments that receive federal funds from maintaining databases with information about political activities and affiliations. The ACLU obtained the documents after suing the state police.

Maryland state police Col. Terrence B. Sheridan said in a statement that his agency had never taken illegal action against citizens or groups that lawfully exercise their right to free speech and assembly.

"Only when information regarding criminal activity is alleged will police continue to investigate leads to ensure the public safety," the statement said.

The Maryland ACLU sued last month, claiming the state police refused to release public documents about surveillance of peace activists. The suit claimed a state police intelligence unit monitored Baltimore peace groups that protested at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade in 2004.

The documents also show that state police set up a covert e-mail account to chat with organizers of a death-penalty protest.

The Maryland ACLU will file additional requests for records and "will seek legislative reforms to ensure this kind of improper spying never happens again," said ACLU of Maryland Executive Director Susan Goering. She said she feared the documents released yesterday were only the tip of the iceberg.

The documents show that for 14 months, the state police Homeland Security and Intelligence Division used covert agents to infiltrate the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, a peace group, the Coalition to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans, a death-row inmate, the ACLU said.

Goering sent a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley yesterday asking for an immediate end to the surveillance. The group also wants a ban on sharing existing files with other law enforcement agencies, the withdrawal of the information from databases, a public accounting of the surveillance of peaceful protest activities, the notification of individuals who have been monitored and the opportunity for those monitored to view their files.

Rocah said he hoped the governor and other state officials "would be as troubled as we are and, as I suspect most Marylanders are, to learn this is happening," calling the surveillance "intolerable in a Democratic society."

A spokesman for O'Malley did not respond to a call seeking comment.

One well-known peace activist, Max Obuszewski, was entered into the "Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area" (HIDTA) database. The database, originally intended to fight drug trafficking, was modified by Congress in 2006 to assist in terrorism investigations as well.

Obuszewski has been cited several times for protesting outside the headquarters of the National Security Agency and said police surveillance of his group was first revealed during discovery for a trial against two others who had been arrested. He said yesterday he was not surprised to learn he had been entered into the database but found it "sad at the same time that the government is wasting time and money and on me and others that are doing constitutionally protected free-speech activities."

He says he will continue protesting, but fears the surveillance will prevent others from doing so.

"I know that a lot of people will not be coming to meetings now because they will be fearful of winding up in a government database," Obuszewski said. "That's the really sad thing."


Related

Police adopt policy for probing groups that exercise speech (news)
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