Lea Gilmore: With Spies Like Them, Who Needs Enemies?

We’re pleased to bring you a special guest blog today by CEM contributor Lea Gilmore.

When 10 Maryland citizens showed up on March 16, 2005 for an anti-death penalty meeting in Takoma Park to coordinate activities on behalf of Maryland death row inmate Vernon Evans, I am sure they didn’t think they had a spy in their ranks. As they mobilized volunteers, worked on flyers, and discussed their peaceful protests, I am sure it did not cross their minds that they were doing something so subversive that it warranted secret attendance by Maryland State Police (MSP) undercover agents.

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Well, that’s what they got.

Documents obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) lawsuit revealed that the MSP engaged in covert surveillance of local peace and anti-death penalty groups for over a year from 2005-2006. In a press release distributed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the organization expressed alarm at the incomprehensible spying revealed in 43 pages of summaries and computer logs, none of which refer to criminal or even potentially criminal acts, other than a few isolated references to plans for completely nonviolent civil disobedience.

ACLU of Maryland Executive Director Susan Goering blasted the program stating, “The documents show that the MSP engaged in surveillance operations against peaceful activists similar to those abandoned in the 1970s with the end of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous COINTELPRO program. The ACLU will soon file additional requests under the Maryland Public Information Act to assess other activities and targets of the MSP’s ‘Homeland Security and Intelligence Division’ and will seek legislative reforms to ensure this kind of improper spying never happens again.”

So I ask, just what were the Maryland State Police looking for? Did they think that folks were planning to peace us to death? Did they believe these dangerous peacenik gatherings and rogue anti-death penalty groups must have required extra special undercover surveillance in order to save us from “the tuurist”? Or maybe they are saving us from uh…tourists? That must be it. Rabid tourists are descending on local peace gatherings inspiring and plotting destruction of family values and our way of life.

OK, let me stop being facetious.

I understand completely that when Thomas Jefferson said “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” that that really does mean something. We must remain vigilant in the presence of real threats and real enemies, but we must not abandon and throw out our civil liberties in the process. We must be careful to weigh our fear with reason, and be ever so ready to question the motives of government when our rights start sliding down that slippery slope towards injustice.

It’s a curious thing. Republicans are always complaining about “big government.” That being said, former Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich and his administration, in this secret folly, seemed to embrace their “bigness,” with a warm bear hug, with Bob taking on the awesome responsibility of becoming a “big brother” to us all.

The fact that the Ehrlich administration expended funds to spy on groups that may disagree with them ideologically, and in the process trampling on their and our constitutional rights, is beyond egregious.

Is this just the tip of the proverbial iceberg? How many other innocent groups and individuals in Maryland and beyond have fallen victim to these intrusive and unconstitutional practices?

These actions are now receiving the national attention they deserve. According to The Baltimore Sun, the US Congress will seek to ascertain the Homeland Security Department’s role in this spy game, and whether federal tax dollars were used in the process. With economic collapse happening all around us, dedicating significant funds on this unwarranted chase is just sad and shameful. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, in a letter to the department stated, “These allegations are extremely troublesome and bring to light past domestic covert operations, which were found to be not only unconstitutional but also damaging to the rule of law and America’s democratic principles.” He continued, "Funding of the state police actions with federal taxpayer dollars would constitute a waste of valuable resources, both human and financial."

I love this country. What I most love about this land of ours is that I can scream from the rooftops about how ridiculous and Un-American I believe these actions are, all the while knowing I will not be sent to that mystery place of no return because I did – well, at least not yet.

From creepy and insidious Patriot Acts, to our government leaders having serious conversations about the details of defining torture (torture!), this post “911” political climate has lent itself to allowing us to accept the chipping away of our civil liberties by those who manipulate our reasonable fears in unreasonable ways for political gain.

The political tide is turning. This has spurred something in Maryland‘s electorate and beyond, and is quickly becoming a catalyst for change. The bipartisan outrage at these actions is a sign of life that there are limits to how much and what we will allow done in our name. The ACLU of Maryland is continuing to mount efforts to find out what other organizations and activists have been singled out for this wrongful spying. US Senator Benjamin Cardin and Maryland State Legislators are calling for hearings to delve deeply into these unconstitutional actions. This is not going to be swept under the political rug.

The old folks used to sing a song while marching for equality that rings so true today, “I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around…gonna keep on walking, keep on talking, marching up to freedom land.” We will not be turned around by generated fears and covert power plays. We will keep those flashlights pointed in the face of injustice — Now that’s eternal vigilance.


-Lea Gilmore