Wednesday, November 19, 2008; Page B01
Maryland State Police labeled members of a Montgomery County environmental group as terrorists and extremists days after they held a nonviolent protest at an appearance by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. at a Bethesda high school.
Police files released to the activists reveal that the governor's security detail alerted the state police's Homeland Security and Intelligence Division to what troopers guarding Ehrlich described as "aggressive protesting" by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network in 2005.
A review by The Washington Post of those and other files given in recent days to many of the 53 Maryland activists who were wrongly labeled as terrorists in state and federal databases shows an intelligence operation eager to collect information on the protest plans of a broad swath of nonviolent groups from 2005 to at least early 2007.
Those groups included not only death penalty and Iraq war protesters who were spied on by undercover troopers in a 2005-06 surveillance operation exposed in July, but also those who opposed abortion, the manufacture of cluster munitions, globalization and the government's expansion of biodefense research at Fort Detrick.
The intelligence officers were particularly interested in determining the groups' intentions ahead of specific rallies scheduled in the Washington area.
The files, whose release and eventual purge were urged in an independent review of the undercover surveillance operation, are heavily redacted in black ink. Many contain about five pages, consisting largely of tidbits of information about each person and his or her protest group. Some list what they call "monikers" for the activists, which are also blacked out.
The individuals are listed under headings for "terrorism" with such labels as "anti-war protestors," "threats," "environmental extremists" and "anarchists," although there is no explanation why any of the groups or individuals would be considered terror threats or extremist groups.
The ACLU of Maryland, which represents many of the activists, is scheduled to release more of the files today.
State police spokesman Greg Shipley said yesterday that he could not discuss the contents of the files. He said redactions were made to protect confidential "methods, techniques, procedures and other individuals who may be named" in the documents.
Shipley said that a group or an individual's inclusion in state police files does not mean it was the target of long-term surveillance. "These actions were incident-based in response to intelligence information and in response to proposed events or actions that led to concern on the part of police for issues of public safety," he said. "Checks were made based on information, and they moved on."
The police appear to have discovered some of the activists on the Internet. In the case of the Takoma Park-based Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the executive director and three other staff members were entered into the database after the group attracted the attention of Ehrlich's personal security detail, state troopers known as the Executive Protection Division.
A dozen members of the climate group showed up at Walt Whitman High School on Nov. 17, 2005, to protest as Ehrlich announced his support for tighter rules to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants. The network and other environmental groups criticized the rules for not going far enough.
The protesters held up banners and chanted, "Governor -- What about global warming? What about carbon?" as Ehrlich and his staff entered the school, several recalled in interviews. They asked several students to hold up signs during the news conference inside the school.
No arrests were made. Eleven days later, the detail alerted the police intelligence division to the group.
"One of the protestors 'aggressively' tried to approach the Governor, others tried to get into the school and some of the protestors tried to recruit students to carry signs inside of the event," according to Executive Director Mike Tidwell's file. Tidwell's photo, taken from his group's Web site, was included in the database. He did not attend the protest.
Josh Tulkin, the group's deputy director at the time, recalled that when he walked into the school, security guards grabbed his shoulder and wrist, led him into an empty classroom and questioned him.
After the undercover surveillance was revealed in July, the group reviewed its own records. It appeared that a trooper working for the program had used an alias to join the group's e-mail list.
"I believe this was political retribution," Tidwell said yesterday.
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell, who was a press secretary in 2005, said yesterday that Ehrlich had no role in the security detail's day-to-day judgments.
"He's not in the business of telling Executive Protection how to do their job," Fawell said. He said he did not recall Ehrlich "ever expressing any opinions" about Tidwell's group.
Other files appear to have been created just days before expected protests.
They include those on leaders of such national antiwar groups as Code Pink, three of whom landed in the database. One, Nancy Krecorian of New York, said she has never been to Maryland. Files also exist on local groups including Pro-Life Carroll County. The efforts of leaders Vince Perticone and Maria DeCesare to organize and apply for a permit for a rally in downtown Westminster were documented in one-page files, their attorney told The Post. The files showed that a plainclothes trooper attended the event.
Attorney Steven Tiederman, who represents Perticone and DeCesare, said the police seem to have put peaceful protesters in the same category as violent ones who bombed abortion clinics.
Files were also compiled on two Catholic nuns from Baltimore and a former Democratic candidate for Congress, Barry Kissin. Kissin, his wife and two colleagues have marched peacefully through downtown Frederick since the anthrax attacks in 2001 to argue that the government's planned expansion of biodefense research poses a health threat.
Ten days before Medea Benjamin was scheduled to speak at the 20th Annual Peace, Justice and Environmental Conference in Frederick in April 2005, state police created a database entry for her. Benjamin, co-founder of the antiwar group Code Pink and the fair-trade group Global Exchange, was described as a San Francisco activist who gives speeches on "her brand of in your face civil disobedience."
When Code Pink was scheduled to appear at another Frederick conference a few months later, state police again researched Benjamin. From the files, it appears that police copied language from the Internet -- some directly from the group's Web sites and documents -- and pasted it into their database.
"It shows the ridiculous connection they're trying to make between peace activism and terrorism," Benjamin said. "Two of these events I was never at."
Benjamin's file lists two potential terrorism "crimes": a primary one as an environmental extremist and a secondary one as an anarchist and animal rights activist.