Police Spied on Peace, Anti-Death Penalty Groups
The American Civil Liberties Union released
documents Thursday showing that undercover officers from the Maryland
State Police spied on peace groups and anti-death penalty protesters
for over a year in 2005 and 2006. The police summaries and intelligence
logs reveal that covert agents infiltrated groups like the antiwar
Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, the Baltimore Coalition Against the
Death Penalty, and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans, a death row
prisoner. We speak with antiwar activist Max Obuszewski and with
journalist Dave Zirin. Both were the target of surveillance. [includes
Max Obuszewski, longtime Baltimore
peace activist, monitored by the Maryland State Police. He is with the
peace group Baltimore Pledge of Resistance.
Dave Zirin, sportswriter and author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports.
He writes a weekly column called “Edge of Sports.” His
latest article is called “COINTELPRO Comes to My Town.”
This transcript is
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AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Maryland, a new document
revealing police surveillance of local activists opposed to war and the
death penalty. The American Civil Liberties Union released documents
Thursday showing undercover officers from the Maryland State Police
spied on peace groups and anti-death-penalty protesters for over a year
from 2005 to 2006, when Robert Ehrlich, Jr. was governor. On Friday,
current governor, Martin O’Malley, vowed not to allow police
surveillance of peace groups.
The police summaries and
intelligence logs obtained by the ACLU under the Maryland Public
Information Act reveal that covert agents infiltrated groups like the
antiwar Baltimore Pledge of Resistance, the Baltimore Coalition Against
the Death Penalty and the Committee to Save Vernon Evans, a death row
prisoner. According to the documents, police monitored and entered the
names of activists in a law enforcement database of people suspected of
being terrorists or drug traffickers. Maryland ACLU staff attorney
David Rocah released the documents at a news conference on Thursday.
DAVID ROCAH: What
you see in the documents today is a particular individual, Max
Obuszewski, sitting to my left, who is listed in the Maryland
high-intensity drug-trafficking area database with—under the
suspected crimes of terrorism. Mr. Obuszewski is a person who has
devoted his entire life to nonviolent, peaceful protest activities on
behalf of peace. If there is anyone in the world who is further from a
terrorist, it’s hard for me to imagine them. And that the
Maryland State Police can think that being antiwar is a subset of
terrorism is a terrifying prospect.
AMY GOODMAN: Longtime
peace activist Max Obuszewski from the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance
joins me now from Washington, D.C. We’re also joined by another
target of the surveillance of the Maryland State Police, Dave Zirin,
the sportswriter and author of, among other books, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports.
He writes a weekly column called “Edge of Sports.” His
latest article for CounterPunch is called “COINTELPRO Comes to My
Town.” We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
Max Obuszewski, let’s begin with you. Tell us how you learned about what was taking place.
MAX OBUSZEWSKI: You
just played a clip of David Rocah from the Maryland ACLU speaking. He
called me. I was in court on Wednesday, last Wednesday. I’m a
member of the Ghosts of the Iraq War. We were arrested March 12,
protesting in the Senate gallery. I have a trial September 29. So I was
in court for a status hearing. When I got home, probably about 4:00
p.m., David called me to say they got this information from the
Attorney General’s office. This is the Maryland Attorney
General’s office. And he said, “I hope you’re sitting
down, because I want to tell you that you’ve been listed as a
I mean, I know, as a longtime peace activist, that I’m
being surveilled. And these documents that were released is just a tip
of the iceberg. But to be labeled, put into a database and accused of
terrorism—and it’s a drug trafficking database, that was
beyond comprehension. It just indicates, in my opinion, the fallacy of
the searches that are going on by our government in putting people into
these databases. A lot of the questions at the press conference that
day was about, have you traveled internationally, do you have any
trouble getting on airplanes, and so on and so forth.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your work, Max? What do you do?
MAX OBUSZEWSKI: Well,
I’m a full-time peace activist. And I mentioned earlier that I
think this is the tip of the iceberg. 1996, July 4th, a group of us, a
fairly large group, went out to the National Security Agency to protest
the operations of the Puzzle Palace. Phil Berrigan, Jeremy Scahill and
I sat in front of a gate to protest the place. That was the first
protest at the National Security Agency since 1973, when the Jonah
House, Phil Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister and others poured gallons of
blood at the entrance. This is noted in James Bamford’s book Puzzle Palace.
So we decided to start that up again. So this was July 4th of 1996. So
we go out there every Independence Day or a date close to Independence
Day since that time. And that’s obviously going to put you on the
radar screen. Or acting with Phil Berrigan, I’ve been arrested
with Phil Berrigan. I’ve joined him on many of the Plowshares
actions that took place that he was involved in. And all of
that’s going to cause my name to be registered someplace.
of us were arrested October 4th of ’03 at the National Security
Agency. For whatever reason, three of us had our charges dropped, even
though all five of us did the same thing, tried to request a meeting
with the NSA director. Two of the people went to court the following
August, ’04, and in discovery we finally got what we knew was
going on, that the National Security Agency and other members of the
Joint Terrorism Task Force were surveilling us. And I filed a FOIA
request to try to get the information. They indicated, yes, we have
information on the Pledge of Resistance, the Jonah House and other
protest groups, but we won’t give you the information unless you
pay $1,400. We had guardian angels who were willing to pay the $1,400,
but we didn’t think that was principled. We felt we should get
this information without paying for it. So we then contacted the
American Civil Liberties Union, and they filed lawsuits through Heller
Ehrman, a Washington, D.C. law firm, who’s doing all this work pro bono with everybody, including the Maryland State Police.
Maryland State Police informed the ACLU that they had one document.
They will not release it, though, because it would reveal covert
operations. The Maryland ACLU then went to a federal court in June of
this year, and, lo and behold, the Attorney General’s office
released forty-four pages. I firmly believe, though, there’s
many, many more information. The Baltimore City Police, for example,
claim they have no documents on us. Well, if you carefully read the
documents that have been released, Baltimore City intelligence was
always in the loop in the surveillance and so on. And the documents
that were released in the NSA trial indicated to us that Baltimore
intelligence was involved in that operation, watching us as we gathered
at the American Friends Service Committee and then traveled out to Fort
Meade, where the National Security Agency is located.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave
Zirin, you’re a well-known sportswriter, have written a few
books. You’re writing now about the Olympics in China. How did
you get ensnared in this?
DAVE ZIRIN: Amy, they
picked on the wrong sportswriter, and they picked on the wrong group of
activists. For more than a decade, I’ve worked with an
organization called the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. It’s a
group that does remarkable work, nodeathpenalty.org.
I mean, we do such seditious activities as tabling at farmers’
markets, organizing pickets and trying to raise awareness about the
nature of the death penalty. And I had a little group that was meeting
in Takoma Park, Maryland. And if your listeners and viewers don’t
know anything about Takoma Park, Maryland, you’re far more likely
to find tie-dye than terrorists, far more likely to find vegans than
violence in Takoma Park. And yet, still, they infiltrated. Still, they
sent agents. Still, our taxpayer dollars went to pay people to
infiltrate and take notes on our meetings, and it’s absolutely
And I can only draw two conclusions from it. I mean, the first
is that a lot of this Homeland Security funding is an absolute sham,
that it’s being used to actually crush dissent, not to keep us
safer in any real way. I mean, we were talking about farmers’
markets, for goodness sake, petitioning, doing tablings. And the second
thing I can conclude from this is that we actually posed a real threat
in Maryland. We won a moratorium against the death penalty. We had
exposed it as the most racist death row in these United States. And
yet, still, they—I think it just made them remarkably nervous,
because we were making some real headway.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know who was spying on you?
DAVE ZIRIN: Yes,
we do. It was somebody who was known to us as Lucy. She came into our
meeting. She was very enthusiastic. She—I remember her sitting
there taking copious notes. She wasn’t the sort of person who
would raise her hand and ask incendiary questions. It all seemed very
much like this was just another person from this liberal enclave of
Takoma Park who was interested in working with us.
And I’ll tell you, that’s one of the most insidious
things about this. And this is the whole history of
counterintelligence, COINTELPRO, it’s that it breeds this sense
of paranoia. It breeds this sense of, do I really know this person
sitting next to me? Who is this person really about? And I really hope
that as activists our reaction is not to regard the people who are next
to us at demonstrations with suspicion. And it’s like my friend
Mike Stark says, hey, as long as the police agents are carrying water,
then let’s not try to be too much looking at each other and
pointing fingers at each other, because it’s far more important
that we keep our eyes on the prize. And for us, that’s ending the
death penalty in Maryland.
AMY GOODMAN: Max Obuszewski, was Lucy someone who was known to you? And did you feel like—did you feel like you were being followed?
MAX OBUSZEWSKI: Well,
let me also mention this, that Lucy—her first contact that we
have so far that we know of was actually back in February, before
these—the dates of these documents. She attended a meeting that
Bernadine Dohrn spoke at in Baltimore. This was—I believe it was
February 8th of ’05.
AMY GOODMAN: The well-known Irish activist.
MAX OBUSZEWSKI: Exactly. No, no, this is—
AMY GOODMAN: No, no, no, the—yes, the activist from Chicago.
MAX OBUSZEWSKI: Exactly,
Weather Underground. So, I got that information from Red Emma’s,
a bookstore here in Baltimore, that she was at that. But she was Anne
at that time. And I went back and looked at the emails I received from
her. She changed her name later to Shoop. And it’s very
interesting, because in the documents, a lot of this information is
redacted. Once they come to my, quote-unquote, “criminal
history,” most of that is redacted. But there’s at least
one place, maybe two places, in there where she’s identified. Do
we have a friend in the Attorney General’s office that
intentionally did that? I don’t know.
But you have to understand, though, that there was more than
just her coming to meetings watching us. We had an anti-death penalty
protest when Ehrlich was being inaugurated in Annapolis, and this
gentleman showed up and was with us, traveled with us, came back with
us. We never saw him again, never heard from him again. The presumption
is, he was also a State Police officer following us.
The sad thing is, as Dave is talking about, all of these
gatherings, there’s also the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Commemoration
Committee. They actually came to one of our rallies where we had hibakusha
speaking. The sad thing about all of this, constantly in these
documents the agents indicate that we were doing nonviolent work, that
we were doing First Amendment work, but they kept repeating, “We
think that this investigation should continue.” They logged in
288 hours. I’m a pacifist. The idea that the Maryland State
Police, the Homeland Security division, is going to be coming to
meetings that I attend is beyond comprehension. Generally, in larger
meetings, I always ask: if there’s anyone here from the FBI, the
NSA or the CIA, please identify yourself; you’re welcome to
participate in the meeting.
AMY GOODMAN: These are open meetings; you advertise them for people to come.
MAX OBUSZEWSKI: Yes,
exactly. They’re advertised. There’s fliers put up. The
rallies are all announced. We—you know, anyone can come to our
meetings. We’re trusting.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike Stark is quoted in the Washington Post,
another activist, anti-death penalty activist, if the governor,
O’Malley, will now be spied on, because he’s opposed to the
DAVE ZIRIN: Right. And I think this
lays out an important challenge to Governor O’Malley, because
Governor O’Malley has said—in response to this, he has
said, “Well, look, we are not going to be spying on people who
engage in lawful activities.” I would make the case that
that’s not good enough. We need a full investigation of what the
Maryland State Police have done. We need an absolutely ironclad
statement by people in power that they’re not going to spy on
people who are involved in what should be constitutionally protected
And I’ll tell you something, Robert Ehrlich,
the Governor of Maryland, he put his hand on a Bible and swore to
uphold the Constitution of the United States, and then he proceeded to
use the Constitution as a handy-wipe in surveilling people like Max,
myself and many, many others. And I think it’s got to be clear,
that we’re going to go on offense right now. We’re going to
have press conferences. We’re going to bring a lawsuit through
the ACLU. And when this is all said and done, Bob Ehrlich and the State
of Maryland, they’re going to be paying for my kid’s
braces, because this is outrageous that they’ve gone after us
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, Dave Zirin, your latest piece is about China and is about the Olympics—
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —and about repression, about serious squelching of freedom of speech of all the different countries’ teams.
DAVE ZIRIN: Right.
That’s absolutely right. And that’s happening inside and
outside of China. I mean, recently, there have been flames of protest
in many different provinces in China, from Sichuan, where the
earthquakes were, to Hunan, Shanghai, Xizhou, and the common variable
has been, the Chinese totalitarian government has said, quote,
“We need to go on war footing to make sure that there are no
protests in Beijing during the Olympics.”
At the same time, Western powers have put out the word to their
athletes: you cannot go to China and raise issues like Darfur, like
Tibet, like issues about labor rights, even issues of the environment
and bottled water, which affect athletes directly. I mean, we’re
going to see marathon athletes perhaps running with masks on, because
they’re so scared of the environmental damage that it could do to
their lungs by running in Beijing.
And so, you’ve got this crackdown on dissent in China
that’s being mirrored by Western Olympic officials. And here at
home, those of us who just want to get together in Takoma Park and talk
about fighting the death penalty are seeing similar infiltration. It
boggles the mind.
AMY GOODMAN: The head of the
Olympic Committee has warned this, the head of the British Olympic
Committee, the Canadian Olympic Committee. Has the US Olympic Committee
told athletes not to speak out?
DAVE ZIRIN: They’re
engaging in a very interesting contradictory message. On the one hand,
they have said quite clearly, sports and politics do not mix.
They’ve laid that down. And the coach of USA basketball, for
example, Mike Krzyzewski, has said, one has nothing to do with the
other; it shouldn’t happen. At the same time, other Olympic
officials have said, well, we do sort of believe in freedom of speech,
so maybe people should say something. And I think that speaks to the
push-pull relation relationship that the US has with China, as both
people they depend on for underwriting their wars oversees and as their
global banker, but at the same time, also they’re in competition
with China for global economic supremacy. So you see those
contradictions in how the US is approaching the Olympics.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Dave Zirin, well-known sportswriter, his latest book, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports.
And Max Obuszewski, longtime peace activist from Baltimore. Both Dave
and Max have been the targets of a Maryland spying campaign by the
state police. They’re asking for more documents and say
DAVE ZIRIN: Absolutely.
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