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Surveillance: Let it Go

The Maryland State Police surveillance of advocacy groups was far more extensive than previously acknowledged, with records showing that troopers monitored -- and labeled as terrorists -- activists devoted to such wide-ranging causes as promoting human rights and establishing bike lanes.

As addressed previously, there are a number of reasons why programs like this are not what they seem, but from a civil rights and liberties perspective and an intelligence perspective. Some key clues in the story itself:

One of the possible "crimes" in the file police opened on Amnesty International, a world-renowned human rights group: "civil rights."

Now, I'm not down with honest-to-God spying on people who are exercising their civil rights, but even if your Subaru bio-diesel conversion is held together with protest bumpers tickers, odds are your personal information, movements and habits are in more grocery store shopper's club databases than they are in any government database. Being kept track of by someone, somewhere, is a fact of life. Your virtual self is more regularly and vigorously examined, parsed and utilized by private concerns than any public entity. Don't believe me? Almost no one reading this is on the no-fly list; Everyone reading this gets junk mail, telemarketing calls, and myriad 'special offers' in email.

The documents and law enforcement sources say the operation began in 2005 with a simple request from Maj. Jack Simpson, a field commander in special operations. In late February, he called Lt. Greg Mazzella in the intelligence division and asked for a threat assessment of protests expected before the scheduled execution dates for two men on Maryland's death row.

After trawling the Internet, an analyst reported a "potential for disruption" at both executions. Mazzella dispatched a corporal who needed experience in undercover work to the Electrik Maid community center in Takoma Park, where death penalty foes were organizing rallies.

Just as we saw with the infamous TALON database, put people who are not intelligence professionals on the job and you get a database full of junk. From an intelligence perspective: garbage in, garbage out. I'm not casting aspersions on any of Maryland's finest, but based on this story alone it seems like the rigor that you would have had if this were a CIA, DIA or NSA operation targeting operatives overseas was lacking.

As long as people keep raising this abomination from the dead, I'll keep handing out the garlic and wooden stakes:

Peaceful protest is great, but not all protestors are peaceful. Just like the vast majority of cops, soldiers and intelligence officers are honorable, dedicated people doing their jobs to the letter and spirit of the law; it only takes one bad apple to ruin the reputation of everyone else.

When you are unused to dealing with certain situations or actors, the natural reaction is over-reaction. We all do it to one extent or another and we shouldn't expect people charged with the responsibility of keeping us safe to be immune. The day they ignore a potential threat is the day something horrible happens and they get blamed for not doing enough.

Intelligence, done properly, can be extremely useful. This is especially true in law enforcement organizations. We should not be jumping on the police for trying to get pro-active (most law enforcement being reactive), we should be arguing for more resources and a creation of new or re-tooling of existing organizations in order to provide meaningful intelligence without violating people's rights. It can be done, we just need to care enough to make it happen.

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