a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Takoma Park forum on Maryland State Police spying

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 13th, 2008

Max Obuszewski
Max Obuszewski and other activists spied on by
the Maryland State Police
. From left to
Maria Allwine, (Baltimore Pledge of Resistance
(BPoR), Kit Bonson (Washington Peace Center),
Obuszewski (BPoR), Mike Stark (Campaign to End
the Death Penalty). Allwine and Stark were also
among those surveilled by the MSP.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew.

I’ve written a couple of times now about the Maryland State Police spying scandal (“Sachs Report…”, “Maryland Police Surveillance: Case Explorer and Civil Liberties“).   This Saturday, I attended a forum about it organized by the Washington Peace Center and held at the Presbyterian Church in Takoma Park.

Speakers included four activists surveilled by the state police (Baltimore Pledge of Resistance (BPoR) activists Max Obuszewski and Maria Allwine, and Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) activists David Zirin and Mike Stark), state senator Jamie Raskin, and David Rocah, the ACLU-Maryland lawyer who obtained the documents breaking the Maryland police spying scandal.  Ann Wilcox of the National Lawyer’s Guild broadened the focus by reporting on infiltration and surveillance connected with the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota in September.

Obuszewski, Allwine
Mr. Obuszewski explained that the discovery of police surveillance was connected with protests he was part of at the NSA facility at Fort Meade. Noticing that documents were being provided to the judge in his civil disobedience case, Obuszewski got the help of the ACLU in August of 2006 to obtain whatever he could by federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Maryland Public Information Act petition. Fellow BPoR activist Allwine said she was certain that surveillance had been going on before the time frame they were able to uncover, and may well go beyond the state police.  Allwine is particularly curious about an intelligence unit of the Baltimore City police.  Referring to a October, 2003 incident, she wants to know whether Martin O’Malley — then mayor of Baltimore — was aware of city police surveillance of groups like hers at that time.

Allwine spoke of the chilling effect this can have on free speech; she’s advised worried people in the past that “you have to assume we’re being spied on,” but added “this is the most un-American thing I can think of — people responsible for public safety turning around and spying on” people exercising their right to free speech.

Fifty-three peace and death penalty “terrorists” — not four
Dissatisfaction with Sheridan, Sachs
Raskin/Hixson legislative reponse
The real “fringe”

Fifty-three peace and death penalty “terrorists” — not four
Both Obuszewski, Allwine, and other speakers referred to last Tuesday’s hearing in Annapolis, where State Police Richard Sheridan dropped the bombshell that that 53 activists — not 4, as previously revealed — were referred to as “terrorists” on the State Police “Case Explorer” database.  As the Washington Post’s Lisa Rein reported:

Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan revealed at a legislative hearing that the surveillance operation, which targeted opponents of the death penalty and the Iraq war, was far more extensive than was known when its existence was disclosed in July.

The department started sending letters of notification* Saturday to the activists, inviting them to review their files before they are purged from the databases, Sheridan said.

“The names don’t belong in there,” he told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “It’s as simple as that.”

Dissatisfaction with Sheridan, Sachs
While Sheridan’s statement on the impropriety of the surveillance was welcome, several speakers — including the ACLU’s David Rocah — pointed to shortcomings in the developing response to the situation by the current State Police chief.  First, no apology has been given for the surveillance — although Rocah acknowledged such an apology would probably make it easier to collect financial damages from the state.  More importantly, the people involved will not be allowed to keep hard copies of the surveillance data gathered on them — making it much more difficult to expunge identical data elsewhere in state or federal databases, should such data be discovered.  Third — as also reported by the Washington Post in a followup article on Thursday — spying victims will not be allowed to bring lawyers with them to review the documents.  The ACLU is protesting all of these restrictions.

Rocah added that he disagrees that current State Police Chief Terrence Sheridan really “gets it” about the scandal, and spoke of a pattern of deception and noncooperation.  The lawyer pointed out that even Stephen Sachs — a former Maryland attorney general, and the author of a highly critical report on the scandal (see this post) — was told that there were only four peace or death penalty activists mislisted as “terrorists,” not fifty three.

Given the limited time frame subject to discovery so far (2005-2006) and the metastasizing numbers of activists and groups involved, it seems likely there’s more to discover. As Rocah put it,“Everything we know so far has been forced out of the Maryland State Police” — even under O’Malley. Sheridan also

  • testified that no search has been made for particular groups in the database, when it’s already clear that at least four are specifically named,
  • claimed that there was no backup of the database involved (almost unbelievable), and
  • said he didn’t think the names had been circulated to “other” agencies in the federal system — a claim that (1) Sheridan would have little way of verifying, (2) one that is somewhat contradicted by former State Police Chief Thomas Hutchins who said that names might have been shared with the National Security Agency, and (3) was difficult to believe given this passage from the Sachs report (pp. 54-55):

    Of the six Case Explorer case files that were created in connection with the investigation at issue here, MSP, through the electronic linkage between Case Explorer and HIDTA,** transmitted to HIDTA information from four case files, along with, in three of the cases, a “terrorism” crime designation. As a result of this transmission, HIDTA has in its database information listing Max Obuszewski as being under investigation for potential involvement in “terrorism,” and listing four groups, including the American Friends Service Committee and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, as “security threat groups.” (MSP transmitted to HIDTA at least part of the case file in which three other activists, including two nuns, were also listed as suspects in a “terrorism” investigation, but HIDTA removed that case from its database earlier this year as result of its policy of purging old case files on a three-year cycle.)

Even supposing Sheridan meant “other than HIDTA” by “other agencies”, it would be remarkable indeed if records of alleged “terrorists” weren’t shared with other federal agencies involved in so-called “homeland security.”

Several activists were also critical of the Sachs report in not going far enough; CADP activist David Zirin, a sportswriter by trade, compared it to “driving 99 yards and settling for a field goal”, noting for example that Sachs didn’t call for criminal investigations of Thomas Hutchins or former governor Bob Ehrlich.

In a possibly related point, Rocah said that federal regulations require that users of criminal justice databases like “Case Explorer” must certify that they have policies in place to prevent people from being spied on based on their political, religious, or social views.  Since the Maryland State Police didn’t have such policies, Rocah concluded they either falsely certified they did, or were illegally not required to certify that they did.

From my notes, Rocah’s advice to people receiving letters of notification was to

  • notify the ACLU, so that organization has a complete picture of who was surveilled,
  • insist on physical copies of all records, and
  • not visit the State Police without a lawyer, so that they can be sure all relevant data collections are shown to them.

For more, see the Maryland ACLU “No Spying” web site.

State Senator Jamie Raskin
State Senator Jamie Raskin. David
Zirin is on the left.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew

Raskin/Hixson legislative response

State Senator Jamie Raskin spoke at the forum as well.  He said that in researching state law on what had happened, he found transcripts of very similar state hearings in the wake of COINTELPRO and state “red squad” revelations in the 1970s — without resulting legislation prohibiting such abuses

Raskin wants to remedy that, so together with District 20 Assembly delegate Sheila Hixson, he’ll be introducing legislation prohibiting aw enforcement agencies from investigating political groups without “articulable, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” The legislation will require agencies to develop and promulgate regulations requiring, among other things, written orders from senior officials when such surveillance takes place.  While I wasn’t able to take notes fast enough to be sure I have the details right, Raskin also envisions prohibitions on disseminating information outside the collecting agency, as well as prompt access to information by surveillance targets and purges of information (presumably when it’s improperly collected despite the safeguards he wants).

However, when I asked for more on the provision prohibiting the ‘distribution of information outside (the state agency, according to my notes),’ Raskin said he’d been assured (presumably by the Sheridan testimony critiqued above) that hadn’t taken place.  My question was whether the legislation would include provisions prohibiting the use of databases communicating with federal agencies unless it’s possible to purge illegitimately collected and shared data from those federal databases, at state request.  While my question may well have been unclear, it’s also possible Raskin took Sheridan’s testimony on this subject as definitive and true, rather than as speculative and quite possibly mistaken.

Raskin decried the surveillance as a “naked violation of First Amendment rights”; and said that the people being surveilled were really the opposite of terrorists — opposing the violence and terror of unjust wars and executions by bringing people together.

He agreed with David Zirin’s very astute observation about fighting the paranoia this kind of program can bring about among activists.  Zirin had been on a radio program where one caller said “you know how you can tell who the informers and police plants are?  They’re the one calling for radical action” — and the next one said “you know how you can tell who they are? They’re the conservative ones, saying not to do anything.”  Zirin’s take: well, that’s everybody then!  Raskin’s take: “it’s important not to let the paranoia of the government create paranoia among the people.”

The real “fringe”
One piece of news from the forum that was oddly disquieting and encouraging at the same time was about how cavalierly former State Police chief Thomas Hutchins took the First and Fourth Amendment.  His view was that no spying had taken place, since the meetings involved were public, and that (as Lisa Rein reported), the members of the groups involved were “fringe people” — causing a wave of sighs of disapproval from the audience behind him, as both the Post’s reporter and many of the activists at the forum reported.

But whether or not he’s ever prosecuted, Hutchins has marginalized himelf in the long run.  As several speakers at the forum pointed out, the widespread, bipartisan reaction to the scandal showed that if anyone was on “the fringe” it was people like him.

As Zirin put it, the surveillance showed that his opponents couldn’t win their arguments legitimately: “We were spied on not because of who we are but because of what we represent.”

* The link is added, and leads to a copy of one letter of notification, with the recipient’s name redacted.
** HIDTA stands for “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area” and is an initiative of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The “Case Explorer” database used by the Maryland State Police was developed by the Washington-Baltimore HIDTA, and is now used by agencies around the country.
UPDATE, 10/14: Spying on Activists Discussed at Forum (Rein, Wa.Post): “… their identities indicate that the 14-month surveillance operation in 2005 and 2006 targeted not just local opponents of the death penalty and Iraq war, as police claim, but a broader group.”
EDIT, 10/14: added disclaimer about advice from Rocah and link to Maryland ACLU.

One Response to “Takoma Park forum on Maryland State Police spying”

  1. Video: Max Obuszewski (Baltimore Nonviolence Center) speaks at Defending Dissent forum | Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition Says:

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