Liberty Lost in Maryland: More Groups than Thought Were Illegally Spied Upon by Government

Washington Post

Sunday, January 4, 2009; Page A01 – The Maryland State Police surveillance of advocacy groups was far more extensive than previously acknowledged, with records showing that troopers monitored — and labeled as terrorists — activists devoted to such wide-ranging causes as promoting human rights and establishing bike lanes.

Intelligence officers created a voluminous file on Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calling the group a “security threat” because of concerns that members would disrupt the circus. Angry consumers fighting a 72 percent electricity rate increase in 2006 were targeted. The DC Anti-War Network, which opposes the Iraq war, was designated a white supremacist group, without explanation.

One of the possible “crimes” in the file police opened on Amnesty International, a world-renowned human rights group: “civil rights.”

According to hundreds of pages of newly obtained police documents, the groups were swept into a broad surveillance operation that started in 2005 with routine preparations for the scheduled executions of two men on death row.

The operation has been called a “waste of resources” by the current police superintendent and “undemocratic” by the governor.

Police have acknowledged that the monitoring, which took place during the administration of then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), spiraled out of control, with an undercover trooper spending 14 months infiltrating peaceful protest groups. Troopers have said they inappropriately labeled 53 individuals as terrorists in their database, information that was shared with federal authorities. But the new documents reveal a far more expansive set of police targets and indicate that police did not close some files until late 2007.

The surveillance ended with no arrests and no evidence of violent sedition. Instead, troopers are preparing to purge files and say they are expecting lawsuits.

The effort, made public in July, confirmed the fears of civil liberties groups that have warned about domestic spying since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Interviews, e-mails, public records and an independent state review reveal that police in Maryland were motivated by something far narrower: a query about death penalty activism directed to a police antiterrorism unit that was searching for a mission.

But some observers say Sept. 11 opened the door. “No one was thinking this was al-Qaeda,” said Stephen H. Sachs, a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to review the case. “But 9/11 created an atmosphere where cutting corners was easier.”

Maryland has not been alone. The FBI and police departments in several cities, including Denver in 2002 and New York before the 2004 Republican National Convention, also responded to the threat of terrorism by spying on activists.

Sachs’s review, released in October, condemned the Maryland spying as a severe lapse in judgment. No one has been reprimanded or fired, and the undercover trooper has been promoted twice.

To date, the activists listed as terrorists are not known to have experienced any related limits in their travel, employment or financial transactions.

State police officials have provided only glimpses of their intelligence-gathering and have defended some of it as necessary to ensure public safety at potentially contentious protests. Although they have provided related documents to the American Civil Liberties Union and Maryland lawmakers, they have not given the same records to The Washington Post under the Public Information Act.

The department declined to make the officers involved available to answer questions. Some sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the case’s sensitivity. Ehrlich also has declined to comment; senior police officials say he was never briefed on the program. The newly discovered documents do, however, reveal for the first time the stated purpose of the operation: “To assess the threat to public safety by various protest groups, and identify high threat groups for continued monitoring.”

* * *

The documents and law enforcement sources say the operation began in 2005 with a simple request from Maj. Jack Simpson, a field commander in special operations. In late February, he called Lt. Greg Mazzella in the intelligence division and asked for a threat assessment of protests expected before the scheduled execution dates for two men on Maryland’s death row.

After trawling the Internet, an analyst reported a “potential for disruption” at both executions. Mazzella dispatched a corporal who needed experience in undercover work to the Electrik Maid community center in Takoma Park, where death penalty foes were organizing rallies.

At a rally to save Vernon Evans Jr. outside the Supermax prison in Baltimore a few weeks later, the woman who said her name was Lucy McDonald asked veteran activist Max Obuszewski how she could learn more about passive resistance and civil disobedience.

The activists recall that she had a genial disposition and refreshing curiosity, and she quickly became a fixture at meetings and rallies of death penalty opponents and antiwar activists. She used a laptop computer at meetings, but the activists say no one was alarmed. “Maybe I wondered what she was typing,” said Mike Stark of Takoma Park. “But you always check yourself. In our movement it’s very important to be outward and not paranoid.”

The trooper provided weekly reports to her bosses, logging at least 288 hours of investigative time. She did not return phone calls seeking comment, and The Post is not identifying her because of concerns about compromising her cover in other possible operations.

The logs described silent vigils outside the prison and a ceremony of poetry and songs to commemorate the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. The activists pledged nonviolence. Yet she closed several entries this way: “Due to the above facts, I request that this case remain open and updated as events warrant.”

The woman’s bosses considered her surveillance a low-risk training exercise; it quickly expanded to the antiwar movement as she met activists whose causes overlapped, police said.

Intelligence commanders discussed the spying at their daily briefings and made Lt. Col. Thomas Coppinger, then the chief of the intelligence bureau, and Superintendent Timothy Hutchins aware of it, law enforcement officials said. Coppinger and other officers involved in the case declined to comment.

The program emerged after the antiterrorism squad had been whittled from almost 65 to a dozen.

Hutchins’s predecessor, Ed Norris, a hard-charging former Baltimore police commissioner, had built up the division after the Sept. 11 attacks to fight terrorist threats.

But when Norris was forced out by corruption charges in 2004, the unit was gutted. Most of the computers and other high-tech equipment for intelligence troopers were literally ripped out of the walls, law enforcement sources said.

“We concentrated on what we could do best, rather than a little bit of everything,” Hutchins said.

When Simpson called, the unit finally had a mission.

Greg Shipley, a police spokesman, said the undercover operation spanned months as the death penalty cases saw their timelines grow and the executions delayed.

Other intelligence gathering was prompted by planned protests largely to ensure that no violence occurred, Shipley said. Investigators had concerns about the potential for “counter-demonstrations” to planned protests, he said.

Current Superintendent Terrence Sheridan said in a Nov. 25 letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) that police had a right to monitor activists in public forums.

“Presence at a rally, a demonstration, gathering information from open sources such as the Internet, etc. are all part of the collection of the knowledge and information crucial” to police work, Sheridan wrote.

* * *

The undercover trooper’s early moves were sometimes clumsy. She sent e-mails from a domain linked to the state police that could easily have been uncovered with an Internet search. She sprinkled truth across her cover story, once revealing her home county. She suddenly changed her name to Lucy Shoup and offered a new e-mail address, claiming a change in marital status. She asked lots of questions but never shared her thoughts, activists say. She also tried to use her new friendships to learn more about other groups.

Then, with Evans’s execution stayed, the woman disappeared. “Lucy was no more,” Obuszewski recalled.

Meanwhile, the intelligence-gathering expanded in other directions, to activists in New York, Missouri, San Francisco and at the University of Maryland. Shane Dillingham’s primary crime, according to the six-page file classifying him as a terrorist, was “anarchism.” Police opened a file on the doctoral student in history a week after an undercover officer attended a College Park forum featuring a jailhouse phone conversation with Evans.

Investigators also tracked activists protesting weapons manufactured by defense contractor Lockheed Martin. They watched two pacifist Catholic nuns from Baltimore. Environmental activists made it into the database, as did three leaders of Code Pink, a national women’s antiwar group, who do not live in Maryland.

PETA was labeled a “security threat group” in April 2005, and by July police were looking into a tip that the group had learned about a failing chicken farm in Kent County and planned on “protesting or stealing the chickens.” A “very casually dressed” undercover trooper attended a speech by PETA’s president that month and waited afterward to see whether anyone talked about chickens. Nobody did.

Police had turned to the database in a low-cost effort to replace antiquated file cabinets. The Washington High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a regional clearinghouse for drug-related criminal information, offered its software for free.

But the database did not include categories that fit the nature of the protest-group investigations. So police created “terrorism” categories to track the activists, according to the state review. Some information was sent directly to HIDTA’s main database as part of an agreement to share information.

Putting the activists into the database was “a function of nothing more than the insertion of a piece of paper in a paper file in a file cabinet,” Sheridan wrote. But labeling them “terrorists,” he said was “incorrect and improper.”

The activists fear that they will land on federal watch lists, in part because the police shared their intelligence information with at least seven area law enforcement agencies.

HIDTA Director Tom Carr said his organization’s database became a dead end for the information because law enforcement agencies cannot access the data directly. The database instead acts as a “pointer”: Investigators enter case information and the database indicates whether another agency has related material and instructs investigators to contact that agency. The activists were not a match with any other data, Carr said, and their information has since purged.

“The problem lies in the fact that once [the state police] checked it out and found it was not accurate, they should have removed it from the system,” Carr said. “And they did not do that.”

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The surveillance program became public largely because of documents released during a trespassing trial for Obuszewski, the nuns and another activist arrested during an antiwar rally at the National Security Agency. The documents showed that Baltimore intelligence officers were tracking them. The American Civil Liberties Union then filed public records requests with several law enforcement agencies. When the state police refused to release what they had, the ACLU sued.

O’Malley condemned the monitoring as a politically motivated mistake and moved quickly to seek answers. He appointed Sachs, who had prosecuted Catholic activists for raiding a Selective Service office in 1968.

Sachs called the spying a “systemic failure” that violated federal regulations and said police were oblivious to the activists’ rights to free expression and association.

The Maryland State Police have changed their policies and plan to solicit advice from the ACLU, the General Assembly, prosecutors and police about regulations that would raise the bar for intelligence-gathering to “reasonable suspicion” of a crime.

Some activists have responded by redoubling their efforts.

Pat Elder, a Bethesda advocate who organizes a demonstration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the gates of Lockheed Martin’s headquarters, sent a public message to police last month on a local Web site.

“Did it ever occur to you that we’re on the side of the good guys and you’re not?” Elder wrote in an open letter to the NSA, the Maryland State Police and Montgomery police. “How do you think it makes us feel to know you’re looking over our shoulders this way?”

Staff researchers Julie Tate and Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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