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Government police powers devolve into political punishment

July 27, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

For seven years now, people who ought to know better have turned a blind eye to government invasions of privacy, perhaps out of a genuine fear of terrorism or perhaps because they belong to the same political party as the administration doing the snooping and are loathe to admit it has made an egregious, if not criminal, mistake.

The apologists for wire tapping, hidden cameras and e-mail scanning generally have boiled their argument down to this plausible-sounding statement: If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.

Fair enough. But what if the government starts changing the definition of "wrong?" What if simply having an opinion becomes a punishable offense?

By the time this all shakes out, we may find ourselves owing a debt of gratitude to the administration of former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich for crystallizing in no uncertain terms what is so dangerous and what is so flagrantly unconstitutional about recent government intrusions.

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For more than a year, Maryland State Police, allegedly using homeland security funds, infiltrated law-abiding associations opposed to the Iraq war and the death penalty. Members of those groups were placed on terrorist and drug-dealer watch lists.

Ehrlich claims he had no knowledge of this initiative, a pretty thin protest from a man who fired government employees who didn't share his ideology and kept an operative known as the "Prince of Darkness" on staff who executed dirty political tricks.

Ehrlich, as the saying goes, has a track record; he has not earned the benefit of the doubt. And who believes that the state police, of their own volition, would care what happened at a meeting where death penalty opponents were deciding whether or not to staff a table at a local farmers' market?

But who is to blame is not the point. The real issue, the frightening issue, is that legitimate government police work can so quickly and easily spill over into politically motivated spying and the punishment of law-abiding Americans for the sin of practicing their constitutional right to free speech.

This is what some clear-minded individuals have been saying since 2001 - one little bend in the dam of constitutional liberties can lead to an all-out breach of abuse. Government, in short, cannot be trusted to know when to stop.

In America, even the staunchest supporter of the death penalty would not suggest that opponents do not have the right to believe otherwise. Nor would anyone say that it is illegal to believe that the war in Iraq has been a horrendous waste of life, time and money.

Yet here in Maryland, holding those opinions was enough to mark you as a potential terrorist; good luck next time you're in the airport security line.

As it is, we have enough trouble in this nation getting people to think deeply, to care, about issues that matter. Now this. Who is going to join an activist group if the possibility exists that an undercover police officer is taking down your name so it can be patched into a government database? Will you whisper something to the person in the next chair if you can't be guaranteed he or she isn't a cop? When you believe your government is doing something wrong, how eager will you be to speak up if you fear it could make you a target?

This is a universal American issue, not a left versus right issue - given the same control and opportunities, a Democratic administration would have been every bit as capable of attacking opposing thought.

With the same cover story and the same funding, is it too hard to imagine state police being ordered by a Democratic administration to infiltrate gun-rights groups or spy on anti-tax agitators?

It's the nature of power. And if it is your group that has that power, it is too easy to look the other way or attempt to justify abuse against those with whom you disagree. But sooner or later, the other guys will hold the reins and the spotlight that was once on your opponents could be turned to you.

And they would use your tax money to pay for the operation.

It is possible, I suppose, that the Department of Homeland Security has covertly thwarted a number of terrorist attacks on our soil and that's why there have been no repeats of 9/11. You know how it goes. They would love to tell us about their successes but they can't because it's classified.

But this Maryland episode tells a different story. If there were true priorities, true emergencies, would Homeland Security have money to fritter away on political hatchet jobs? It seems that lacking actual enemies, enemies have to be created. Again we see the futility of trying to solve a problem by throwing money at it. Too much power and too much cash is a dangerous mix.

I don't give terrorists much credit for thinking, but if they were so inclined it might be easy to conclude there is no longer a need for outsiders to bring down the United States - the United States government is doing the job for them.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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