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"WE THE (FRINGE) PEOPLE ..."

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In mid-July, The Washington Post reported that Maryland State Police had infiltrated and monitored several peace and anti-death penalty activist groups in that state for 14 months during 2005 - 2006. The surreptitious activity occurred during former Governor Robert L. Ehrlich's administration. I condemned the police actions in a July 27 editorial and called on Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (D) to denounce their activities, discipline the current and former police officials involved, and make amends to the affected groups for the state's conduct.

On July 31, the Governor appointed Stephen H. Sachs, a former US attorney and former state attorney general, to conduct an independent review of the State Police's surveillance activities.There turned out to be more than just "several" grassroots advocacy groups infiltrated - many more. The number may be as high as 32. On September 30, the Maryland ACLU demanded the State Police disclose all information they had covertly gathered on all progressive activist groups. More than 100 groups contacted the ACLU, believing they had been infiltrated.

A state police spokesman said the department "will address the requests and provide any information [the ACLU] is entitled to under law."

Sachs' 93-page report was released on October 1. It concluded that State Police "significantly overreached" when they spied on the activist groups. He called the surveillance a "systemic failure" and said the inclusion of people's names in terrorist databases showed a "lack of judgment."

He pointed out that groups were not targeted because police disagreed with their political beliefs. Police agents thought they were doing the right thing: "Each officer who participated ...believed that he or she was promoting and protecting public safety," Sachs said. However, in a news conference Sachs said, "there was a systemic obliviousness, a blind spot" regarding groups' and individuals' civil liberties. He noted that in the post-9/11 world, "there was an 'end justifies the means, better safe than sorry' attitude."

This police attitude is scarily reminiscent of what Ron Suskind calls Dick Cheney's "one percent doctrine": if there is an even one-percent chance of an event taking place, it must be treated as a certainty and a preemptive response must be mounted. There was a reason for that attitude: local law enforcement agencies were flush with federal cash meant to root out domestic terror plots. And when you get money to fight terrorists, everybody begins to look like a terrorist. (Many parents know this phenomenon by another name: the Law of the Hammer. "Give a three-year-old a hammer and everything looks like a nail.")

Here's a message to police everywhere: the Constitution was not intended to control us, the people; it was intended to control you, the government. That's true even when you have lots of money. It's true even when you think you have a good excuse. It is always easier to manage under conditions of certainty than uncertainty but the Constitution does not allow you to elevate your own certainty by infringing on people's rights.

At an October 7th Maryland State Senate's Judiciary Committee hearing, State Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan offered a shocking revelation: not only was there a program of infiltration and surveillance but as a result of it 53 non-violent activists were classified as terrorists and added to a variety of state and federal databases that track terrorism suspects.

Sheridan said that some protest groups were also classified as terrorist organizations but did not identify which ones. Suddenly enlightened, however, he conceded, "The names don't belong in there. It's as simple as that."

If it's so transparently simple, one wonders, how and why did they get there in the first place?

Sheridan's predecessor, retired State Police Superintendent Thomas E. Hutchens, answers that question. He authorized the surveillance/infiltration operation and to him the issue was not so simple. He said the program was needed to stem potential violence. He called the activists "fringe people."

Apparently we the fringe people of the United States are not afforded the same Constitutional freedoms and protections as our more passive brethren are. Chief, ever hear of James McHenry (think Fort)? How about Daniel Carroll or Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer? Those were some real fringe people, willing to invent a new government. And they signed the US Constitution on behalf of your state, Maryland.

Hutchens refused to call his program "spying," preferring instead to quibble over terminology. "I doubt anyone who has used that term has ever met a spy. What John Walker did was spying."

Call it what you like, Colonel. John Walker committed treason. His treasonous acts involved spying on the government. In the present case, only the targets are different; the actions still involved covert intelligence gathering. Most people call that spying. (Besides, if the spy we met were a good spy, how would we know he was a spy?)

Hutchens continued, "I don't believe the First Amendment is any guarantee to those who wish to disrupt the government."

Chief, why would anyone think the Constitution gives them any right to disrupt the government? Where did that come from? It does say that the government - that's you - may not abridge our rights to assemble peaceably and speak our minds freely - without your infiltration and surveillance.

The Sachs Report recommends, among other things, that new regulations be enacted to forbid such police activities in the future unless the police superintendent can justify them. That may be a starting point, but the then-superintendent, Hutchens, was apparently able to justify the program now in question- at least, to himself. The report also recommended that state databases be purged of the activists' names and personal information and that each affected person be notified and given a chance to review the information the police collected about him/her.

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Rick Wise is an industrial psychologist and retired management consultant. For 15 years, he was managing director of ValueNet International, Inc. Before starting ValueNet, Rick was director, corporate training and, later, director, corporate (more...)
 
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The very concept of a “state police” i... by Richard Wise on Saturday, Oct 11, 2008 at 9:02:04 AM
Here's a link to a story on spying on activist... by Richard Wise on Saturday, Oct 11, 2008 at 10:38:05 PM
The first time the heat came round and busted me f... by Clark on Saturday, Oct 11, 2008 at 11:28:08 PM
You are sadly correct, Clark, this is what cops do... by Richard Wise on Monday, Oct 13, 2008 at 4:07:32 PM
Excellent article, excellent analysis.... by martinweiss on Sunday, Oct 12, 2008 at 3:39:25 AM
Thank you.... by Richard Wise on Sunday, Oct 12, 2008 at 8:46:50 AM
You can't get a good result by using evil mean... by Zena Princess on Sunday, Oct 12, 2008 at 5:27:13 PM
Thanks for the kind words, Zena.  I agree wit... by Richard Wise on Monday, Oct 13, 2008 at 4:17:16 PM