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."
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 rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
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.
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.
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 terrorist.”
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.
Can you talk about your work, Max? What do you do?
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.
Five 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.
The 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.
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?
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 enraging.
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.
Do you know who was spying on you?
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.
Max Obuszewski, was Lucy someone who was known to you? And did you feel like — did you feel like you were being followed?
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.
The well-known Irish activist.
Exactly. No, no, this is —
No, no, no, the — yes, the activist from Chicago.
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.
These are open meetings; you advertise them for people to come.
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.
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 death penalty.
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 acts.
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 like this.
It’s interesting, Dave Zirin, your latest piece is about China and is about the Olympics —
— and about repression, about serious squelching of freedom of speech of all the different countries’ teams.
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.
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?
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.
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 they’re suing.
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