Maryland Police Play Spies--And Look Like Fools

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The Washington Post

Maryland Police Play Spies--And Look Like Fools

by
Marc Fisher

For years, the Maryland State Police, eager to play anti-terrorist surveillance agents just like the big boys on TV, spied on suburban peace activists who may have been loud, but never posed the slightest threat to the nation or the state.

So what did Maryland taxpayers get for their investment in the state police's investigations of 53 people, including lawyers, a candidate for Congress, a leader of an effort to curb military recruiting in Montgomery County high schools, and a sportswriter?

Have a look for yourself--it's pitiful.

Here's Pat Elder's file, mostly blacked out by police censors who perhaps have a bit more to hide than they've admitted to thus far. Elder is a regular on the Montgomery County protest scene; he's an anti-Iraq war activist who became a leader of the drive to limit the military's ability to push its recruiters on unsuspecting high school students. In 2006, the state police "obtained" information that Elder was leading a protest against a defense contractor in Bethesda, Lockheed Martin Corp. So they worked up a dossier on Elder. The information available between the blacked-out portions contains not a thing that you and I couldn't have found in about four minutes of Googling.

Well, not quite. The state police's Homeland Security and Intelligence Division--just think about how much you're paying for those words--did pick up one new fact: Elder, 53, has no criminal record. Whew.

The state police categorized Anne Havemann of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network--a group so secretive that you can wander through its web site here or "obtain" their financial reports here--as an "environmental extremist" and "terrorist." In the very same five-page report, the police called Havemann the group's "executive director" and its "executive assistant." In fact, she is neither; she's the communications director, which means she gives out information about the group, something she'd surely have been happy to do for the police if they'd just given her a call.

The police's interest in the environmental group seems to stem from an incident in 2005, when then-Gov. Bob Ehrlich visited a Montgomery County high school and some activists from the Climate Action Network protested outside. The police reports say that some members of the group dared to try to "recruit students to carry signs inside" the school and that one protester "aggressively" approached the governor, who somehow managed to survive the incident.

One of the few files that shows any real surveillance on the part of the police is the investigation into a Baltimore peace activist named Max Obuszewski. The police spent a good deal of time and effort tracking his movements and finding out what he said at meetings of Pledge of Resistance, a group opposed to U.S. involvement in the Iraq war. Turns out that Obuszewski and friends intended to conduct a demonstration on the Mall in Washington with an official permit from the National Park Service. Turns out also that the activists called then-congressman (now Senator) Ben Cardin for an appointment, met with Cardin at his office, asked him to support a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, and left the office without attempting to kill the congressman or bomb Congress. This breaking news is pretty much the highlight of an investigation that the agent reports took him eight hours. That would be a full day's work that you paid for.

Better that those tax dollars had been used for remedial writing courses for the investigators. Here's how one surveillance report describes Medea Benjamin, a founder of the protest group Codepink, a women's antiwar organization based in California:

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

"San Francisco activist that travels giving speaches [sic] on her brand of in your face civil disobedience."

Newsday called Benjamin "one of America's most committed -- and most effective -- fighters for human rights." The Maryland State Police listed her under "Primary Crime: Terrorism."

The state police produced about 20 pages of investigation on Nadine Bloch, a Takoma Park animal rights activist who also makes giant puppets for anti-war demonstrations. The state police were interested in the 47-year-old activist because of suspicion of "Terrorism-Animal Rights."

"She is involved in puppet making and allows anarchists to utilize her property for meetings," the report says. It's not clear from the investigative report how much state effort went into amassing the evidence for that shocking conclusion. But if you'd like to do your own investigation at home, here's where Bloch hides the photographic evidence of her puppet making. It's her personal web site, cleverly tucked away from public view with the code name www.nadinebloch.co.

Marc Fisher writes a column for The Washington Post.

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