Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

Md. Police Infiltrated Groups Opposed to War and the Death Penalty

The ACLU reports that agents spent 288 hours monitoring private organizing meetings, public gatherings and events held in several churches.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

Max Obuszewski is a seasoned, nonviolent peace activist in Maryland. But to the Maryland State Police, he is suspected of committing the "primary crime" of "terrorism -- anti-war protestors" and the "secondary crime" of "terrorism -- anti-govern."

That is how the Maryland State Police designated him in internal documents that the ACLU of Maryland obtained through a lawsuit and released on July 17. The documents also show that the Maryland State Police entered his name into a database dealing with "high intensity drug activity." These documents reveal an elaborate undercover operation against peace groups and anti-capital-punishment groups.

"Agents collectively spent at least 288 hours on their surveillance over the 14-month period" in 2005 and 2006, the ACLU of Maryland says. Agents "monitored private organizing meetings, public forums, and events held in several churches, as well as anti-death penalty rallies outside the state's SuperMax facility and in Lawyer's Mall in Annapolis."

Groups discussed in the documents include the ACLU, the American Friends Service Committee, Amnesty International, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the International Socialist Organization, the NAACP, and United Catholic Charities. (The mention of the ACLU pertained to an upcoming meeting where the group was to "discuss the Patriot Act and how it is applied to the general population in relation to civil rights and liberties.")

The operation by the Maryland State Police included infiltrating undercover troopers into the small organizing sessions that the activists held. Sometimes only four people attended those meetings -- along with the snoop.

The fake name of one of those undercover troopers was revealed in the documents as Lucy Shoup.

Obuszewski remembers her.

"She was a friendly person," he says. "You could say she was an attractive woman. She was maybe ten years out of college. We never suspected her at all. We were completely trusting in her."

Ironically, one internal document, dealing with a July 11, 2005, meeting of the Pledge of Resistance, states: "Obuszewski and others at the meeting told me that they were concerned about the surveillance they thought they were occasionally under. . . . Obuszewski then briefed the members about the organization of the Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country and how part of their duties was to watch groups such as Pledge of Resistance."

Obuszewski read me three of her e-mails he says he still has in his computer, including one in which she bragged that her name "has a nice ring to it."

April 20, 2005

Hi Max,

I met you at the DP [Death Penalty] protest in Baltimore last week, and wanted to say hello and check on meeting dates/times for pledge of resistance.

Can you tell me a little more about what you do?

I want to get involved but want to make sure I've got the time.

I'm busy right now but would love to get involved if I can.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Lucy.

July 28, 2005

Due to a change in marital status, my name and e-mail have changed and I will no longer be using or checking my old address.

Please send anything to me (pledge, Save Vernon Evans, etc) at shoupy_shoup@yahoo.com.

Whoops, forgot to tell you my name is Lucy Shoup, has a nice ring, doesn't it?

Thanks, I will see you soon.

August 2, 2005

That would be great to be on the list serve for progressive news, alerts, etc., as well as the Baltimore activists' alert.

I'm in the process of moving, so I will give you my snail mail soon.

I may just get a p.o. box to make life easier.

See you soon, Lucy.

In their reports, the undercover officers repeatedly stressed that no crimes were in the making.

"No intelligence has been gathered at this point that there are any illegal or disruptive actions planned," says one document dated March 16, 2005.

"No one advocated any kind of violence or civil disobedience," says another dated April 7, 2005.

"No problems were observed," says one on June 10, 2005.

Nevertheless, the agents kept recommending that "this case remain open and updated as events warrant."

David Rocah is a staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.

"To say my jaw hit the floor, to say I'm stupefied, doesn't even begin to describe my reaction," Rocah says. "This is downright terrifying and ought to send chills down the spine of every American who cherishes freedom and who believes that we have freedom to voice our opinions in this country."

Rocah worries that this type of surveillance and infiltration will discourage people from exercising their First Amendment freedoms.

"It is deeply pernicious," he says. "If your involvement in political activity will result in you being entered into a government criminal database, that will inevitably deter lots of people from being involved in the first place. And being involved in political activity, working together with your fellow citizens, is the foundation of our country, the cornerstone of democracy, the entire reason we exist as a country. If there's anything more fundamental, I'll be damned to know what it is."

Rocah says that such spying is the hallmark of authoritarianism.

"If you think the next person who shows up is potentially an undercover government agent, you immediately begin suspecting everyone, and it becomes impossible to work together effectively," he says, "which is precisely why authoritarian governments around the world engage in these kinds of tactics."

The Maryland State Police denies any wrongdoing.

Here is the statement it released on July 17 in its entirety:

"In response to allegations of inappropriate surveillance by members of the Maryland State Police, Colonel Terrence B. Sheridan, Superintendent of the Maryland State Police, is stating the Department does not inappropriately curtail the expression or demonstration of the civil liberties of protestors or organizations acting lawfully. 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. No illegal actions by 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. Only when information regarding criminal activity is alleged will police continue to investigate leads to ensure the public safety. "

Rocah calls that statement "a bald-faced lie," adding, "Where is the allegation of criminal activity?" In fact, to the contrary, the surveillance logs are replete with the undercover officers' own statements about how polite the demonstrators are.

The logs contain nothing except references to perfectly lawful speech, fully protected by the First Amendment."

Rocah also says that it is "flat-out false" that the state police engaged in no illegal actions. Law enforcement agents must have a "reasonable suspicion" that an individual is involved in criminal conduct or activity before they can spy on that individual, and they are not allowed to collect information on an individual on the basis of "political" or "religious" beliefs unless it directly relates to that person's criminal conduct or activity, Rocah says, citing 28 cfr, section 23.20.

Rocah further disputes the claim that this spying was to ensure the safety of the citizens of Maryland.

"I defy Colonel Sheridan to show me how following these groups in their lawful, Constitutional rights to organize around the death penalty and the war makes you, me, or anyone in the state of Maryland or in the country any safer," Rocah says. "Focusing on this kind of nonsense makes us all a lot less safe. This would be Kafkaesque in its insanity and humor if it wasn't so serious."

The ACLU of Maryland has sent a letter to Maryland Governor Martin J. O'Malley asking him to order "an immediate stop to the surveillance and monitoring of peaceful protest activity and prohibit police from keeping files on the views and expressive activities of peaceful activist organizations."

The governor's press secretary did not return a call for comment.

If the governor and the state police do not cease and desist, the ACLU "will use every legal tool at our disposal to make sure it doesn't happen again," says Rocah.

For his part, Obuszewski says, "It is outrageous that our government continues to do this. We've got to get an apology."

And he reflects back ruefully: "At meetings, I always say if there are any members of the FBI, CIA, and NSA present, please announce yourself. Little did I know."

Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive.