My First-Hand Experience With Government Spies

by Dave Zirin 7/21/08

Finally, at long last, I have something in common with Muhammad Ali.

No, I’m not the heavyweight champion of the world, and haven’t been named spokesperson for Raid bug spray. Like “the Greatest” – not to mention far too many others – I have been a target of state police surveillance for activities – in my case against the death penalty – that were legal, non-violent, and, so we assumed, constitutionally protected. In classified reports compiled by the Maryland State Police and the Department of Homeland Security, I am “Dave Z.” This nickname was given by an undercover agent known to us as “Lucy.” She sat in our meetings of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, smiling and engaged, taking copious notes about actions deemed threatening by the Governor of Maryland, Robert Ehrlich. Our seditious crimes, as Lucy reported, involved such acts as planning to set up a table at the local farmer’s market and writing up a petition. Adding a dash of farce to this outrage, she was monitoring us in the liberal enclave of Takoma Park, Maryland, a place known more for vegans than violence, more for tie-dying than terrorism.

Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and the ACLU, we now know that “Lucy” was only one part of a vast, insidious project. The Maryland State Police’s Department of Homeland Security devoted near 300 hours and thousands of taxpayer dollars from 2005 and 2006 to harassing people whose only crime was dissenting on the question of the war in Iraq and Maryland’s use of death row.

My dear friend Mike Stark, a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty is at times referred to in “Lucy’s” report as a “socialist” and an “anarchist.” One can only assume this is the pathetic time honored tradition of reducing people to simple caricatures, all the better to garner Homeland Security grant money.

Veteran peace activist in Baltimore, Max Obuszewski, who initiated the suit, was as well consistently shadowed as he walked down the streets. His “primary crime” (their lingo) was entered into the homeland security database as “terrorism – anti govern(ment).” His “secondary crime” was listed as “terrorism – anti-war protesters.” The database is known as the Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA. Yes, a respected peace organizer of many decades standing is checked as a terrorist, his actions listed as criminal, for doing nothing more than exercising his rights. It boggles the mind.

Former police superintendent Tim Hutchins defended these totalitarian practices by saying, “You do what you think is best to protect the general populace of the state.” (The article mentioned that Hutchins is now a federal defense contractor. I guess The Global War on Terror is just the gift that keeps on giving for the Hutchins family.)

But “protect the general populace” from what? The surveillance continued even after it was determined that we were planning nothing more dangerous that carrying clipboards in a public place. Hutchins and the Ehrlich administration have undertaken an ugly violation of our civil rights, manipulating fears of terrorism to stamp out dissent.

This is COINTELPRO pure and simple. Like the infamous counter-intelligence program whose heyday many assume was a relic the 1950s and 1960s, it’s an effort to harass the innocent and breed paranoia, all for daring to question power.

Governor Ehrlich and Tim Hutchins stand in the legacy of those who hounded Martin Luther King, and facilitated the death of Malcolm X. They stand in the tradition of those who drove the great actor, college football superstar, and activist Paul Robeson toward The mental breakdown that claimed his life. When Robeson’s files were opened under the Freedom of Information Act, the results were terrifying.

As his son, Paul Robeson Jr. has written, “From the files I received, it was obvious that there were agents who did nothing but follow every public event of my father, or even of me…. It took on a life of its own…. Over time, even for someone as powerful and with as many resources as my dad had…the attrition got to him.”

Now Robeson is on a postage stamp. The moral midgets who destroyed him went unpunished. That’s what has to change. The ACLU, to their credit, is going on the offensive.

As ACLU lawyer David Rocah said at a news conference in Baltimore on Thursday, “To invest this many hours investigating the most all-American of activities without any scintilla of evidence there is anything criminal going on is shocking. It’s Kafkaesque.”

Unfortunately for people like Gov. Ehrlich, it is also “the most All American of activities” to take the constitution and use it as their personal hand wipe.

As the great political philosopher Ice T wrote, “Freedom of Speech…. just watch what you say.” Well, now is exactly the time not to watch what we say. I’m angry. I’m angry for my friends, who trusted “Lucy” and others. I’m angry that my tax dollars went to paying the salaries of people who spy and intimidate those exercising their rights. I’m angry that Barack Obama just voted to increase the power of the Federal government to disrupt people’s lives. And I’m angry enough that I’m joining a lawsuit initiated by the ACLU. “Homeland Security” picked on the wrong sports writer. They also picked on the wrong group of activists. We will not be silenced.

[People who want to express their outrage can contact the office of the current Governor Martin O’Malley. We should demand a full investigation of the MSP, public release of all documents obtained through this illegal activity, and a specific commitment that the anti-death penalty and anti-war movement will not be targeted. Call the office of the governor at 1-800-811-8336, or submit a comment online at]

Dave Zirin is the first sports correspondent for the Nation Magazine. He is the author of “Welcome to the Terrordome” (Haymarket) and “A People’s History of Sports in the United States“(The New Press), coming out this summer. Contact him at