Information sought on whether state police used federal funds
By Laura Smitherman and Matthew Hay Brown
Baltimore Sun, July 24, 2008
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, asked the department yesterday for a "full accounting" of actions by the state police and of any federal funding it provided to the law enforcement agency. In a letter to Michael Chertoff, the department secretary, Thompson questioned whether the covert operations violated constitutional safeguards.
The state police have come under fire for surveillance conducted on protest groups in 2005 and 2006 during the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Documents detailing those activities were released last week by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed a lawsuit seeking the information. The state General Assembly is also planning hearings on the matter.
Members of the Maryland delegation including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House majority leader, and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, expressed support for the congressional scrutiny.
The ACLU and civil liberties activists have warned for years that the Homeland Security Department's efforts after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to give local law enforcement agencies a national security role could encourage unwarranted investigations of private citizens. ACLU officials have said the Maryland case is reminiscent of the FBI's infiltration of civil rights and anti-war groups decades ago.
Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, the state police superintendent, has denied that any illegal actions have been taken by state police against lawful protesters. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has said the operations ended before he took office in January 2007.
State police spokesman Gregory Shipley said public safety concerns prompted the surveillance and that he had not been briefed on information regarding federal funding.
Ehrlich, a Republican, said in an interview on WBAL-AM that he was not asked to give approval for the surveillance but that an assistant attorney general assigned to the state police approved it. However, Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, said the state police never requested the agency's opinion on the matter.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment, as a matter of policy.
The Maryland operation has drawn scrutiny from several corners of Capitol Hill. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, who chairs a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said last week that he would investigate the surveillance.
The Ohio Democrat and former presidential candidate is known for his antiwar activism, his legislation to impeach President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and his efforts to create a federal Department of Peace. He said he wants his subcommittee on domestic policy to determine the extent of the spying and who ordered it.
Cummings, a member of the subcommittee, wrote Kucinich yesterday to express his support.
According to the ACLU, which released 43 pages of state police summaries and computer logs, at least two undercover agents spent 288 hours monitoring and recording peaceful protest activities. During that time, agents infiltrated the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, a peace group; the Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty; and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans, a death row inmate.
The ACLU said that nothing in the documents indicated criminal activity or intent by the protesters. Police also entered the names of activists in a law enforcement database of people suspected of being terrorists or drug traffickers, the documents show.
Maria Allwine, a member of Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, said that she hopes congressional action will pressure state officials to release other information, including why the spying was ordered, and result in safeguards to prevent such surveillance. She said lawmakers should examine laws governing the release of public information, noting that her group has been trying to obtain answers through formal requests since 2006.