Friday, July 25, 2008

‘Spygate’ politics

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When I was in school during the late 1960s, I was a big-time Vietnam War protester. I marched in almost every local anti-war demonstration and even helped organize a few.

We were regularly videotaped by police and probably infiltrated. And one anti-war group I joined, the War Registers League, turned up on the U.S. Attorney General’s list of Communist Party front groups. With all that in my dossier, I kissed-off my chances of ever being confirmed for the Supreme Court.

But, seriously, last week’s revelations of Maryland State Police surveillance and infiltration of peace groups and anti-death penalty organizations should alarm every Marylander. A basic American freedom is our right to assemble and protest without becoming targets of police investigation — no ifs, ands or buts. End of discussion.

But equally despicable is Gov. Martin O’Malley’s willingness to play politics with this grave matter. When the ‘‘spygate” story broke in last Friday’s media, Governor O’Malley issued a statement that opened, ‘‘While these events happened in 2005 and 2006 under the previous administration...,” seeking to hang ‘‘spygate” around the neck of his political nemesis, former Gov. Bob Ehrlich.

O’Malley pulled this shoddy ‘‘blame Bob” scam despite a public statement by former State Police Superintendent Tim Hutchins that Ehrlich didn’t authorize and never knew about the police spying. Nevertheless, O’Malley got what he wanted — all the attack dogs lit off after Ehrlich.

‘‘It is very troublesome that law enforcement would brand as a ‘security threat group’ law-abiding people whose only offense was dissenting from Governor Ehrlich’s views ...” railed Maryland Common Cause.

‘‘Blame away Governor [O’Malley]. You’re right. The person responsible for this government abuse of power is Ehrlich,” charged Sun columnist Gregory Kane.

And, of course, the liberal bloggers went into lynch mob mode. Maryland Politics Watch launched a four-part series, ‘‘Inside Ehrlich’s Secret Police” and went completely over the top with this: ‘‘If you want to surrender your liberties to tyrannical government, vote for Bob Ehrlich in 2010.”

Nor is this an isolated instance of O’Malley telling the big lie. A cornerstone ploy in every O’Malley speech is blaming Ehrlich for ‘‘the state’s $1.7 billion structural deficit that was left by the previous administration.”

Truth be known (and it won’t thanks to Maryland’s one-party media), Governor Ehrlich balanced his budgets by shifting funds, raising fees and cutting spending. He wanted slots in lieu of major tax hikes and he left O’Malley a $1 billion surplus. O’Malley squandered the surplus and gave us both major tax hikes AND slots! But, hey, it’s Maryland. Who cares about the truth?

In politics, ‘‘He who throws mud gets dirty hands,” and now O’Malley’s deceitful ‘‘blame Bob” gambit is boomeranging. Both Congress and the Maryland legislature are calling for ‘‘spygate” hearings in which the following will surface:

*The State Police shared their 2005⁄2006 surveillance reports with the Baltimore city police. If Governor Ehrlich should have known what his police were doing, shouldn’t Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley have known what reports his police were receiving, as well?

*The State Police, like every state agency, are assigned an assistant attorney general to review legal matters. Did the Maryland State Police’s assistant attorney general sign-off on the spying? Did Maryland’s attorney general, Martin O’Malley’s father-in-law, know?

*Violations of individual’s rights and liberties are a sore subject for Martin O’Malley. You see, when Mayor O’Malley was running for governor, he kept the city’s politically embarrassing crime rate down by using massive police arrests to clear the streets. An estimated 25,000 city residents were arrested for ‘‘loitering” and ‘‘disorderly conduct” and then released without charges. These illegal ‘‘sweeps” got so bad that the ACLU and NAACP brought class action lawsuits against O’Malley’s administration, which are still pending in federal court.

*Finally, O’Malley is getting caught in his own bad karma. While blaming Ehrlich for the wrongful spying, he’s against changing the flawed process that led to it. In fact, O’Malley’s State Police chief says the spying was perfectly legal.

So now the liberals are upset, insisting that O’Malley lower the boom on the State Police. But O’Malley can’t because he’s cultivating a pro-police, ‘‘tough on crime” image for the suburban Baltimore Reagan Democrats he needs for re-election. See what happens when you get too slick?

To repeat, ‘‘spygate” transcends political game playing. What led to the spying was (1) loose police standards for allowing spying and (2) lack of political accountability. Under today’s standards, the police can spy if there are ‘‘allegations” or ‘‘credible threats” of criminal activity. In other words, rumors, tips and hearsay justify police spying. That’s far too low a standard for invading people’s privacy. And, worse, once no criminal activity was found, the spying continued.

The other mistake was insulating the politicians. If the government wants to spy on us make the highest elected officials authorize it — that way we know who to hang. ‘‘Spygate” was a dangerous accident that Governor O’Malley and the legislature need to fix, not exploit.

Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring.