Terrorism has become a rather elastic, overused term, especially since George W. Bush declared his global war seven and a half years ago.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration applied the term wholesale to a handful of foreign countries and what appeared to be entire populations. Recognizing an opening, other governments eagerly latched on, sometimes brandishing the word as a weapon against political opponents.


Under surveillance: death penalty opponents pray as they protest Maryland's death penalty in 2005. (Chris Gardner/Associated Press)

But few entities, it might be said, jumped in with the enthusiasm of the Maryland State Police.

The vigilant troopers didn't even need to look overseas for their targets. They found their terrorists right here, in the Quaker halls, churches, campuses, community centres and neighborhood gathering spots of the most prosperous state in the union.

Oppose the death penalty? Must be a terrorist. Oppose the Iraq war? Terrorist. Anti-abortion? Interested in human rights? Opposed to government policy in general? Terrorist, terrorist, terrorist.

Possible crime: human rights

The details are still dribbling out, but it appears that for at least three recent years, the state police antiterrorism unit spied upon, infiltrated and documented groups of Marylanders who had the nerve to disagree with the policies of their government. The police acknowledge that at least 53 individuals made their terrorist-watch list but the real number could be much higher.

The troopers zeroed in on Roman Catholic nuns, human rights activists and church groups. They monitored animal rights advocates and cyclists pushing for more bicycle lanes. They opened a dossier on Amnesty International. (That group's crime was listed as "human rights.")

The troopers created files with titles like: "Terrorism: Anti-War Protesters," and "Terrorism: Anti-Govern," and "Terrorism: Environmental Extremists," and "Terrorism: Pro-Life."

To Maryland's finest, even Quakers, the ultimate pacifists, constituted a "security threat group."

It's all out there

The troopers, of course, never wanted the public to hear about any of this. It would all still be secret, shielded in the name of national security, were it not for discovery laws and some smart lawyers.

Now, some of their investigative reports, albeit redacted, are out in the open. And what they describe is fascinating — a naked, unvarnished police view of legitimate dissent in one of the world's most democratic countries.

Most of the reports made public so far describe the infiltration of anti-death penalty groups in 2005 and 2006, when Maryland was preparing for two executions, which are rare in this state.

Undercover police attended meetings and compiled lists of attendees who were then duly labeled and given police files of their own.

Mike Stark, a national board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, was described as a "socialist" in one undercover dispatch and an "anarchist" in another.

Students of political science might find that contradiction in terms amusing, but Stark doesn't.

Death penalty activists, Stark told me this week, know they are generally regarded by police as pro-criminal, even subversive. "As activists," he said, "we consciously try to fight against that sentiment."

But to be labelled a terrorist in an official file? "Creepy and disconcerting." said Stark.

Law-abiding terrorists

The spying produced some strange scenes. In one teleconferenced conversation with a death row prisoner, an undercover policeman in a Washington-area church wound up offering the condemned man words of comfort and support: "Be strong," he urged.

But the agent was actually more interested in the call's other participants. One of them, doctoral student Shane Dillingham, was later classified as a terrorist. His possible crime was listed as anarchism.

Weirdly, the undercover agents stressed repeatedly that none of the activists they were spying upon ever promoted violence or illegal activity.

Quite the opposite. They constantly urged their colleagues to respect the law. At one rally, an anti-death penalty group handed out cards declaring that "in the spirit of Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi, and countless others, we believe injustice must be met and challenged. We engage only with love and respect for the inherent dignity of all human beings."

The undercover trooper reported that sentiment and yet the investigation continued. In fact, the terrorist-chasers eventually extended their surveillance to all manner of social activists.

Ratepayers beware

This week, the Washington Post reported that consumers fighting a steep increase in Maryland electricity rates were also targeted by the troopers, while members of the DC Anti-War Network, which opposes the Iraq war, were designated white supremacists and terrorists. No explanation was given for that assessment.

In the spirit of post-9/11 co-operative law enforcement, the Maryland troopers shared their investigative files with other agencies, ensuring that the "terrorists" they'd uncovered were entered into at least one national database. This effectively cast these people into the secret realm of lists used to deny security clearances, employment and even airline flights.

"No one at Maryland State Police," concluded an independent investigation of the troopers' excesses, "considered whether it was appropriate to transmit information about peaceful protest groups to a federally-funded criminal intelligence database."

In fact, Stephen Sachs, the former U.S. attorney who conducted the investigation after accounts of the police spying started appearing in newspapers, was evidently even more astounded by the attitudes of the many senior troopers he interviewed.

"While the Maryland State Police employees with whom we spoke recognized that the individuals and groups under investigation here were not 'terrorists,' under any reasonable and accepted definition of that word," wrote Sachs, "none seemed to consider that a government agency's decision to label someone a terrorist, particularly when that label is included in an external database, could cause serious harm to that person's reputation, career and standing in the community."

Furthermore, reported Sachs: "Many of the troopers and commanders whom we interviewed maintained, essentially, that it is better to be safe than sorry, and that even a remote risk to public safety justifies the infiltration of groups that plan lawful protests and demonstrations."

'Am I being paranoid'

The Maryland State Police never laid a single charge of sedition or any other related crime against its targets. Officially, the force now regrets the spying. Its current director has called it "a waste of resources" and the troopers are reportedly in the process of "purging" their files. Stark is not comforted.

"What does that mean?" he asked during an interview. "They've already put it into an interagency database. How many times has it been downloaded by various field agents and other agencies? How many times has it been re-indexed, reincorporated, merged into other databases, put on backup tapes that might be restored onto something else years from now?

"Information is never destroyed. And then someday, it's like you don't get on a plane. Am I being paranoid?"

Probably not. As Ottawa engineer Maher Arar can explain, your name can stay on lists down here even when you're cleared (as Arar was by the Canadian government). Guilt or innocence doesn't necessarily have anything to do with it.

And of course, the Maryland troopers weren't the only police organization in the country hungry for a counterterrorism mission after 9/11. They've just had the misfortune of being dragged into the spotlight. There have been unspecific reports of other municipal and state forces doing the same sort of work.

In his investigation, Sachs concluded that the constitutional rights of the troopers' targets were infringed.

"Group advocacy and group dissent are part of the DNA of American democracy," he wrote. "Groups formed to express political and moral beliefs, and to seek changes in government policy, have long been viewed as guarantors of political and cultural diversity, as protectors of dissident ideas from suppression by the majority, and as agents of legal and social change."

The state police didn't return my request for a discussion of dissent.

And no one involved in any of the spying has been demoted, fired or reprimanded. In fact, the lead undercover agent has been promoted, twice.