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From Privacy Times, October 18, 2008
Maryland Police: Non-Violent Activists Are 'Terrorists'
An ever-widening domestic spy scandal in Maryland underscores the dangers of overbroad surveillance powers, as well as Federal and State government agencies’ collection and storage of highly damaging data that misclassifies non-violent political activists as “terrorists.”
The episode stands as an ominous warning of what could be happening in localities across the country, given the spread of “fusion centers,” which are the product of Federal-State cooper-ative efforts supposedly aimed at fighting terrorism, but which are proving vulnerable to “mission creep.” The Maryland Coordination Analysis Center, which was launched with federal funding, was the site of one of the first fusion centers. (See Privacy Times, Vol. 28 No. 3, Feb. 1.)
The ACLU of Maryland is leading a campaign for full disclosure about the affair. Each passing week seems to shed new light on the surprising and troubling reach of the surveillance.
Sources said that more troubling revelations were in the offing.
The Maryland State Police admitted at an October 7th legislative hearing that it classified 53 nonviolent political activists as “terrorists” and entered their names and personal information into unspecified State and Federal databases that track terrorism suspects. The admission was forced by a public records request by the Maryland ACLU.
But despite State Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan’s admission that this was wrong, the police are refusing to provide the wrongly classified activists with complete copies of their files. Instead, activists were notified of the existence of their files, and told they could only read them at the police office, but not be accompanied by an attorney. The police said they would then purge the files from its databases. To date, there has not been a full accounting of which State and Federal databases still hold files on the activists. But activists have declined to review their files if they cannot be accompanied by an attorney. There was no end in sight for the standoff.
Gov. Martin O’Malley’s office declined to answer questions from Privacy Times, and instead, called it a “State police” matter, and referred us to the State police. Police Spokesman Greg Shipley did not respond to Privacy Times’ requests for a comment. Shipley told the Washington Post that “the police are not allowing individuals to make copies because the agency does not want that information passed around publicly.” He added, “It was inappropriate that they are in there, and we are fixing that. It is a matter that is between the State police and that person. No one else is to see the information. They will see their file, and then it will be destroyed.”
The letter from the police superintendent informed activists that an independent review by former State Attorney General Stephen Sachs found they were described in the MSP’s “Case Explorer” database program as being “suspected of involvement in terrorism but as to whom MSP has no evidence whatsoever of any involvement in violent crime.”
At a hearing of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Sheridan acknowledged that the surveillance operation, which targeted opponents of the death penalty, the Iraq war and other issues, was far more extensive than was known when its existence was disclosed in July. (See Privacy Times, Vol. 28 No.14, July 25, 2008.)
“The names don’t belong in there. It’s as simple as that,” Sheridan said. The surveillance took place over 14 months in 2005 and 2006, under the administration of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. (R). The former State police superintendent who authorized the operation, Thomas E. Hutchins, defended the program before the Senate panel. Hutchins said the program was a bulwark against potential violence and called the activists “fringe people.”
“I don’t believe the First Amendment is any guarantee to those who wish to disrupt the government,” he said. Hutchins said he did not notify Ehrlich about the surveillance. Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor had no comment, the Post reported.
Hutchins did not name the commander in the Division of Homeland Security and Intelligence who informed him in March 2005 that the surveillance had begun. More than a year later, after they said, “We’re not getting much here,” Hutchins said he cut off what he called a “low-level operation.”
“I am not a fringe person, and none of us are fringe people,” said David Zirin, a sportswriter and death penalty opponent from Silver Spring, Md. (www.edgeofsports.com)
Zirin was one of 70 activists who gathered at Takoma Park Presbyterian Church in October for a forum sponsored by the Washington Peace Center to discuss a strategy to ensure that their names are erased from any anti-terrorism databases.
According to the Washington Post, other activists at the meeting included:
- Frederick lawyer Barry Kissin, his wife and two other members of the Frederick Progressive Action Coalition, which has marched peacefully to fight the government’s expansion of anthrax/biodefense research at Fort Detrick, Md.
- Two Catholic nuns, Sister Carol Gilbert and Sister Ardeth Platte, both of Baltimore, who have served time in federal prison in Colorado after they trespassed on a military base and poured blood into a nuclear missile silo to protest the war in Afghanistan. When they received their letters from the State police, they were offended that they would be able to review only “relevant” information the police have gathered on them. “Anything you have on me is relevant as far as I’m concerned,” Gilbert said.
- Nancy Kricorian, a New York writer who coordinates that state’s chapter of Code Pink, a national nonviolent women’s antiwar group, said she received an e-mail from the
State police Monday asking for her address. She thought it was a prank. “Honestly, I’ve never been to Maryland,” she said, although she might have driven down Interstate 95
to the District to march in a Mother’s Day peace vigil in Lafayette Square. When Code Pink plans a protest in New York, she’s the one who calls police to let them know. “To me that’s a big irony here, that I’m the police liaison,” she said.
- Pat Elder of Bethesda said he believed he was targeted for his leadership of a national network that opposes military recruitment in high schools. When he called the police to arrange to review his file, he said he was told he would have only a half-hour. After he requested more time, the commander on the phone told him he could have it because his file was “quite extensive.”
- Ellen Barfield of Hamden, an active member of Veterans for Peace told the Post, “I don’t want to go unless I have (legal) representation, because there are important legal issues involved.” She said it is “absurd” that she was listed as a terrorist but she worries that without “evidence” of what is in her file, she might be ill-equipped to deal with future background checks that could find she was considered a threat.
David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, said the group hopes the contro-versy can be resolved through agreements and legislation, including allowing activists full access to and copies of their files. In a letter, he called on Gov. O’Malley to intervene with the MSP.
“Finally, it is clear to us that the full extent of the MSP’s improper activities have yet to be fully disclosed, and it is equally clear to us that MSP efforts currently underway are insufficient for such full disclosure. For example Col. Sheridan indicated in his October 7 testimony that the only search underway to determine the scope of the MSP’s improper files is for people labeled as terrorists in the Case Explorer database. However we know from Mr. Sachs’ report that at least two of the Case Explorer files related to the information already disclosed were indexed not as terrorism investigations, but under the heading ‘CM & D – Intelligence Bulletins,’ and other designations may have been used,” Rocah wrote.
“In addition, Col. Sheridan indicated that the MSP had not yet searched for any groups, even though Mr. Sachs reported that at least four groups were improperly listed in the Case Explorer database as “security threat groups,” including the American Friends Service Committee. We also now know that persons unconnected with any of those four groups (and totally unconnected to any anti-death penalty activity) have received letters indicating that they were listed as suspected terrorists. Finally, searching for individuals in the Case Explorer database will not capture the many individuals whose political activities and views are improperly (and sometimes inaccurately) recorded in the MSP’s still unknown number of case reports and notes, each of whom is also entitled to know what information about them exists and to have it purged.”