Friday, November 28, 2008

State police: FredPAC spying spurred by public safety concerns

There are 53 days until Jan. 20, 2009.
State police: FredPAC spying spurred by public safety concerns
Originally published November 28, 2008

By Meg Tully
News-Post Staff
Maryland State Police were following up on an incident at a Fort Detrick conference when a trooper infiltrated the Frederick Progressive Action Coalition more than three years ago, according to a state police spokesman.
Questions remain about why state police were watching the group before that incident, how police found out about it, and how long the surveillance continued.


The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland released records last week that showed state police sent an undercover agent to a FredPAC meeting Sept. 29, 2005.


The records were released after state police sent letters to 53 activists, including four FredPAC members, telling them they had been wrongly labeled as suspected terrorists in a state database.


At the time of the surveillance, FredPAC was pointing out environmental and public safety risks associated with the expansion of Fort Detrick's U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.


State police spokesman Greg Shipley said this week that surveillance of FredPAC was not related to controversial, broader spying that year on activists who oppose the death penalty.


An undercover trooper attended the FredPAC meeting out of concern for public safety after an incident at the Holiday Inn near Francis Scott Key Mall in July 2005, he said.


Files on FredPAC members were opened three weeks before that incident, however. Shipley said he did not know why the files were opened in June.


The July conference was sponsored by the Maryland Technology Development Corp. to discuss business opportunities associated with the Fort Detrick expansion.


Frederick County sheriff's deputies were providing security outside the event when they saw a vehicle drive over the curb, spokeswoman Jennifer Bailey said.


The driver was wearing a Holiday Inn shirt and initially said he worked for the hotel, before telling deputies that he did not. No criminal charges were filed. The shirt was returned to hotel management.


Shipley said the shirt was stolen, but FredPAC member Gary Staples, the driver, said the shirt was borrowed from someone he knew who worked at a Holiday Inn.


Staples, an inexperienced driver at the time, was hoping to give out fliers to contractors at the conference about the dangers of Fort Detrick, he said.


"I was trying to make them think twice about what they were doing," he said. "It was just information fliers."

Shipley said the incident prompted concern that FredPAC would engage in future criminal activity.


"A trooper attended one meeting, saw no criminal activity, and requested the case be closed," Shipley said.

Shipley said he did not know and could not find out how troopers learned of the incident.


Bailey said state police were not involved in the deputies' investigation of Staples. She said FBI agents on the scene were informed of the situation.


David Rocah, a lawyer with the ACLU, questioned why Shipley said state police spied on FredPAC because of the conference incident when the file was opened before that.


There was no violence at the conference, and no one was arrested, he said.  "Their explanations don't make sense chronologically, and if they don't make sense, then it may be reason to doubt their explanations."


Federal regulations should prevent federal agencies from sharing information about individuals if there is no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, Rocah said.


If the FBI gave information on the incident to state police, that would be improper because the sheriff's office concluded there was no crime, he said.


Security for peaceful protests should be arranged through a permit process instead of through clandestine spying, Rocah said.


FredPAC members Barry Kissin and his wife, Malgo Schmidt, attended the conference and said they wish their message had been heard, rather than being viewed as a threat.


Schmidt asked at the conference if expanding Detrick could lead to increased risk of anthrax attacks.


"When you've got activists who are raising legitimate questions, instead of paying attention to the questions that are being raised, you basically attack the people that are raising questions," Kissin said. "That is totally inimical to the workings of a democracy."

Copyright 1997-08 Randall Family


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