Do you care passionately enough about any issue to attend a public meeting? Have you ever taken part in a meeting where public protests may be planned?
Thanks to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union here in Maryland, we now know that groups meeting to promote peace and end the death penalty were infiltrated by government agents. These agents, who pretended to be active partisans for the anti-death penalty cause, took notes and spied on people exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.
Students of history know that Americans exercising their Constitutional right to protest racist segregation in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1960s and other government policies were the targets of illegal police spying. Individuals such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and singer-activist Paul Robeson were spied upon and harassed for legal social change activities.
Today King and Robeson are celebrated on United States postage stamps, but we still have not learned the lesson of why state-sponsored surveillance of legal activities is not only morally wrong but also a distraction from legitimate police activities and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
A 46-page document released as a result of the ACLU lawsuit is online at the Maryland ACLU’s website. It is well worth spending a few minutes to read this document and think about how your civil liberties may have been impacted by illegal surveillance.
For example, how many of you have ever attended a commemoration of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945? I have seen many Asian Pacific Americans among the peace activists who attend these yearly reminders about the need for peaceful resolution of conflict and the insanity of using nuclear bombs on human populations.
Here in Maryland, if you were at the August 8, 2005, Hiroshima-Nagasaki commemoration rally at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, then you were under surveillance by the Maryland State Police Homeland Security and Intelligence Division. According to the surveillance report released last week, “The rally started at 1700 hours and approximately 20 people stood at 34 th and North Charles Street across from the school and the protestors held up anti-war, anti-weapons testing and anti-nuclear war banners to passing motorists. The protestors were careful not to block traffic or obstruct any pedestrians.”
At 1800 hours (6 p.m.), the group moved to a gazebo that the group had received permission to use. The covert agent’s report notes that about one and one-half hours were spent in poetry, songs, a brief history of nuclear weapons and an update on the current status of nuclear weapons usage. Uniformed members of the Johns Hopkins University Police were present at the event, so it is clear that the event organizers were not saying anything that they wanted to hide from law enforcement authorities.
The covert agent’s report concludes, “Rally participants were not observed breaking any laws.” Two public and widely discussed anti-Iraq war activities were mentioned, but “nothing else of intelligence value was discussed.”
In fact, so little of intelligence value was discussed that the covert agent him or herself ended the report by stating, “Due to the above facts, I request that this case be closed. Total investigative time for [Agent name redacted]: 13 hours.”
The released document shows that 27 meetings of peace and anti-death penalty activists were spied upon in Maryland during 2005 and 2006. The current Democratic governor has stated that the spying carried out under the regime of his Republican predecessor has ended.
Worse yet, the classified amounts of funding, perhaps millions or billions of dollars, that have been allocated to this undefined “war” have meant that government entities such as the Maryland State Police and the private contractor that filed a request to be paid for spending 13 hours at a public peace rally both have a motivation to keep the funding spigot open.
“It serves no security purpose to infiltrate peaceful groups,” said Michael German, a former FBI counter-terrorism agent who joined the ACLU two years ago as a policy counsel. “It completely misuses law enforcement resources.” Since the tragedy of September 11, 2001, said Mr. German, the government has “actively encouraged” local police agencies to become intelligence gatherers and to compile information that does not necessarily have a connection to criminal activity.
This return of Big Brother is now documented in Maryland. Similar activities may have occurred in other states. Anyone who values and uses their First Amendment rights should thank the ACLU for their efforts and re-commit themselves to defending free speech and the right to lawful assembly for all people.