NEWS

Maryland State Police Spied on Nonviolent Activists and Labeled Them Terrorists

By Matthew Harwood

Fifty-three nonviolent political activists were labeled terrorists by the Maryland State Police and actively surveilled for 14 months, reportsThe Washington Post.

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 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."

On Saturday, the state police mailed letters notifying those surveilled that their names had been placed in "the MSP's [Maryland State Police] Case Explorer database program as being 'suspected of involvement in terrorism but as to whom MSP has no evidence whatsoever of any involvement in violent crime." The letter, signed by Sheridan, invites the so-labeled terrorists to review their entry before it is purged from the database. (Read the letter, here.)

Sheridan and Thomas E. Hutchins, the former Maryland State Police superintendent who authorized the program, said the activists were labeled terrorists because the software provided limited labels to classify the activists.

Sheridan also said some of the names may have been shared with the National Security Agency but no other federal agencies.

The Maryland case, however, isn't the only situation where activists have been considered terrorists. Eight anarchist protestors who publicized their intention to disrupt the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last month were arrested and charged with advancing terrorism. They face up to seven-and-a-half years in prison.

Critics fear there is a definitional drift whereby lesser offenses get confused with terrorism, which creates an overly broad idea of what constitutes terrorism.

"One of the biggest concerns among scholars who debate the definition of terrorism is that an overbroad definition would both dilute the real sense of terrorism and punish conduct that has traditionally been a far more minor offense," Stephen Vladeck, associate professor at American University Washington College of Law, told the Associated Press.

The Minnesota statute says a crime can be considered furthering terrorism when it intends to disrupt the conduct of government or the right to lawful assembly.

Ramsey County prosecutors say the label fits the defendants.

"In this instance, the clear intent of the RNC Welcoming Committee, as expressed on their own Web site, was to stop the delegates from getting to the Xcel Energy Center," Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said.

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