Friday, July 25, 2008

State Police on Spying: Unfortunately, More of the Same

According to the Washington Post, Maryland State Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan has reviewed the circumstances of the political spying that occurred under his predecessor. Sheridan's comments, like so many out of the administration on this issue, sound great ... but any hope of reassurance falls apart upon a closer examination.

But before we get to implications for the current administration's activities, there's the question of 2005-2006. Who ordered the spying that occurred during the Ehrlich administration? According to the Post article, Sheridan reports that

the commander of the special operations division at the time made the decision to spy after receiving a request from a department preparing to monitor protests related to the scheduled execution of Vernon Lee Evans.
No evidence has been reported that Governor Ehrlich ordered it or even knew about the spying that occurred during his administration.
Ehrlich said in an interview on WBAL-AM this week that he was not asked to approve the spying. Sheridan's predecessor, Thomas E. Hutchins, has said Ehrlich was not aware of the program.
I trust that investigations by Congressional committees and the MD Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee will get more information about exactly what happened in 2005-2006, and why.

Now, what about today? What about this administration?

The Post reports Superintendent Sheridan's assertion that "Law enforcement has no right or authority to infringe on citizens' rights to free speech or public assembly." (emphasis mine)

I'd agree with that. In fact, it's in the Constitution.

Nevertheless, Sheridan also says the surveillance was lawful.

That means that, in Sheridan's view, spying by the Free State Stasi on yours and my peaceful political activities without a scintilla of evidence of criminal activity or national security danger is not a violation of our rights to free speech or assembly. That's a pretty damn narrow interpretation of free speech and assembly - one that Comrade Stalin would have heartily agreed with, I'm sure. And unless Governor O'Malley contradicts Sheridan, it would appear that this frighteningly cramped view of our First Amendment freedoms is the official position of the O'Malley administration.

Sheridan's statement has other implications, as well. If the surveillance was lawful, then clearly the State Police does have "the right and the authority" to do exactly what it did. So Sheridan's statement that "law enforcement has no right or authority to infringe on citizens' rights to free speech or public assembly" is a meaningless distractor, obviously referring to something other than the what he's being asked about.

It's a statement meant to fool people into feeling complacent, like the other statements we've heard from the administration over the past week. And the distraction seems to be working, judging from the general lack of interest in the mainstream media or among elected officials to find out what's going on NOW, in the O'Malley administration, and not just during the Ehrlich administration.

The Post reports Sheridan's belief that the spying was simply bad judgment, adding his assurance that "this method will not continue." But given his less than candid use of misdirection make it look like he was saying something he wasn't, his assurance is not enough.

And I find chilling his assertion that we should rely on the judgment of those in power, rather than the force of law, to protect our right - a belief shared by Governor O'Malley.

I will be urging my District 18 legislators to sponsor legislation next session to address this issue. I put my faith in the rule of law, not the kind hearts of governors and police superintendents.