UPDATE: In a follow-up story, Washington Post reports: “The 53 peaceful political activists wrongly classified by the Maryland State Police as terrorists will not be allowed to keep paper copies of their files or review them with their attorneys, the agency said yesterday.” The Post also has a copy (pdf) of the letter being sent to the activists.
The Maryland State Police admitted yesterday at a state legislative hearing that it wrongly labeled 53 nonviolent activists as terrorists and added their names to state and federal databases, according to various news sites. The Washington Post reports:
Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan revealed at a legislative hearing that the surveillance operation, which targeted opponents of the death penalty and the Iraq war, was far more extensive than was known when its existence was disclosed in July.
The department started sending letters of notification Saturday to the activists, inviting them to review their files before they are purged from the databases, Sheridan said.
“The names don’t belong in there,” he told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “It’s as simple as that.”
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 in testimony yesterday. Hutchins said the program was a bulwark against potential violence and called the activists “fringe people.”
The Baltimore Sun noted:
Some activists said many unanswered questions remained. Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union, whose public information request first revealed the spying operation, said the Sachs report suggests police undertook a “broad program” and that other still-unidentified individuals and groups may have been wrongfully targeted. They also noted that Sachs did not explore whether local law enforcement had similar programs.
This once again proves that the government needs much more oversight in its surveillance operations and secret watch lists. It should not be possible for anyone to simply designate as terrorists innocent individuals who lawfully exercise their Constitutional rights. Such a designation would clearly cause harm — possibly irreparable harm — to those individuals’ reputations and lives.
I previously blogged about the ACLU’s lawsuit, which revealed the police surveillance of activists. I previously blogged about attempts by the FBI to infiltrate Republican National Convention protesters and discussed the publicly condemned domestic surveillance program, COINTELPRO. From 1956 to 1971, the FBI abused its investigatory powers to harass and disrupt political opponents. Congressional investigations revealed that the FBI built dossiers on groups suspected of having a Communist ideology even though they had not engaged in crimes, including the NAACP, and the agency burglarized political groups to gather data on them.