Targeted because we spoke out

April 3, 2009

Laura Lising, an anti-death penalty activist and International Socialist Organization member who was illegally spied on by Maryland police, looks at a new law dealing with surveillance.

AFTER MONTHS of continuing revelations about the Maryland State Police's extensive spying operation that targeted left-wing activists in the state, the state legislature has passed a bill to significantly limit these activities in the future.

The bill has some weaknesses--most significantly, it doesn't come out against any and all spying against activists and contains no special remedies in case this law is broken. However, the strength of the bill reflects the level of public outrage at the state's activities as well as the work done by activists and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Most notable is the failure of Gov. Martin O'Malley's office in its attempt to put forth a decoy bill that pretended to limit spying while preventing next to nothing.

Throughout the ongoing spying scandal, O'Malley has continually tried to straddle the political fence--taking some action by ordering an investigation, while at the same time severely limiting the investigation (including exempting his term of office from scrutiny) and refusing to push the police to make a full disclosure, claiming that he wanted to let the police to respond. Through rallies, press conferences and letters, activists have called on the governor to do his job and compel the police to stop lying to us, but there has been no reply.

To add insult to injury, the O'Malley administration put out its own bill as a means for legislators to pose as tough on spying. However, this bill was so full of loopholes and ambiguous language that it authorized all of the spying that had already occurred, as well as failing to prohibit the police from maintaining files on activists' political beliefs and activities. Furthermore, the bill was limited only to the state police, rather than covering all Maryland law enforcement agencies. The Maryland ACLU team and activists refused to be fooled by this ploy, and made their views known to state and federal lawmakers as well as the press.

The bill that is coming out of the state legislature right now is far stronger than O'Malley wanted. It covers all law enforcement agencies and prohibits most of the covert infiltration, monitoring and information collection and dissemination that occurred. It is a victory to have prevented this scandal from being swept under the rug with no real action.

However, there is more work to do. There still needs to be a full accounting. Those who were spied on have only seen heavily redacted copies of our files. And all of those individuals who have dossiers without the "terrorist" label also need their files presented to them and then purged. There needs to be real accountability and penalties for the institutions and individuals who ordered and oversaw these actions.

Even with the new law, spying on activists is still permitted if there is suspicion of a crime--which leaves movements open to infiltration if they plan to engage in civil disobedience. Most militant movements eventually use these tactics. Much of the civil rights movement, for instance, could have been infiltrated by police even under this new law.

This is unacceptable. Our struggles for justice should be free from police intimidation.

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