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Advertise on the Tentacle

August 4, 2008

Who's watching the watchers?

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Picture a rally against the death penalty or a gathering of anti-war protesters. Peace signs, Grateful Dead music, chanting, tie-dyed clothing, and soap-box speeches about injustice, inequality, and corrupt abuse of power.


Now imagine that same rally, held anywhere in Maryland during the years 2005-2006, and add one additional component. A plain-clothed Maryland state trooper, posing as a fellow protester, dutifully taking copious notes to document the group's various activities.


This is the latest Maryland political scandal: the use of state police officers to monitor anti-war and anti-death penalty protests.


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) received the records of this state police surveillance program following a suit brought for the purpose of exposing this record. The ACLU provided the media with 43 single-spaced pages detailing 288 hours of surveillance over a 14-month period.


According to the report, none of the organizations involved had any criminal or intelligence basis for being subjected to this level of scrutiny. No history of violence, property destruction, or threats to public officials or institutions. Just plain ol' peaceful protest, nothing special.


One Max Obuszewski, a 63-year-old perpetual protester, was so feared that his exploits in opposing the death penalty – and the Iraq War – got him placed on a national Homeland Security watch list. Probably not a scary guy, and certainly not Osama Bin Laden's right-hand man, Mr. Obuszewski piqued the interest of the Maryland State Police (MSP) intelligence investigators.


The inclusion of this citizen-activist on a national computer data base ranks him right up there with international drug dealers and major terrorists. All because he put on a pair of Birkenstocks and carried a placard.


As soon as the program was revealed, Gov. Martin O'Malley pointed the finger of blame at his predecessor, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. Governor O'Malley hinted that surely Governor Ehrlich must have known about this, if not authorized it directly.


So far, the evidence made available does not support that claim. Governor Ehrlich, through an advisor, indicated that he did not authorize or order the program. He further suggested that an assistant attorney general, who advised the State Police, had given thumbs up to the program.


Current Attorney General Doug Gansler now says that's not true, so one might anticipate some focused Ehrlich-bashing for the next few months. The most interesting public statements on this come not from the politicians, but from the professional law enforcement managers.


Former MSP Superintendent Tim Hutchins explained that the surveillance program was initiated at the request of the MSP Homeland Security Division prior to the planned execution date of convicted murderer Vernon Evans. Rumors of a potentially violent protest were the impetus for the intrusive snooping program.


Current MSP Superintendent Terrance Sheridan has also looked into this. His review suggests that no laws have been broken, although some of the professional judgment might be "questionable."


Never satisfied with a differing viewpoint, ACLU of Maryland has continued to press for more investigation, reporting, and disclosure. Their first stop was Capitol Hill, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., CA) and Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., MD) were quick to call for more action. A congressional committee has now announced its intent to conduct hearings into the matter.


Recognizing the potential to curry favor among a traditional Democratic Party voting block, and probably seizing an opportunity to continue the media clubbing of the previous administration (since this occurred during the Ehrlich Administration). Governor O'Malley has now unveiled his own probe. He has appointed former Attorney General Steven Sachs to head the inquiry and assigned two assistant attorney's general to help him. Colonel Sheridan has also committed the full cooperation of the state police, too.


Being realistic, I doubt seriously that this surveillance effort went far beyond what we already know. I don't expect any big revelations, and it's more likely that someone will end up being a classic scapegoat, the last guy left standing when the music stops playing.


In spite of the wishes of the state Democrats, I doubt that Bob Ehrlich will be that guy. More likely it will be someone within the state police organization. Regardless, I find this whole question deeply troubling.


Not unlike the whole terror paranoia that has gripped our nation since 9-11, this sacrifice of personal freedom in the interest of government oversight is a chilling development. Our nation is great because we have the right to protest, to disagree, and to express ourselves in the manner of our choosing, as long we don't pose a threat or violate the law.


The best lesson we can learn from this debacle is how to avoid future overreaching by our state agencies, and to agree that peaceful protests should be encouraged for what they say about who we are. Police surveillance of lawful protest should be left to the fascists, dictatorships, and communists.


Yellow Cab
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