After greatest hits like Abu Ghraib and domestic eavesdropping, it takes a particularly brazen abuse of power to shock most Americans weary from eight years of the Bush Administration's war on terror. Even the recent revelation that the National Security Agency has been listening to the private calls of our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq probably didn't surprise too many jaded citizens. But the news that Maryland State Police had entered the names and personal information of 53 peaceful left-wing activists and protesters into state and federal databases as terrorists, well that may take the cake. None of them had done or thought anything more violent than raising a placard against the war in Iraq and the death penalty. You have to wonder how many more lists like Maryland's are out there.
The surveillance of the activists that led to their inclusion in the databases took place in 2005 and 2006. "I don't believe the First Amendment is any guarantee to those who wish to disrupt the government," Thomas Hutchins, the former Maryland state police superintendent who authorized the monitoring program of the activists, told a state legislative hearing earlier this month. The names were entered into the Maryland state database, as well as a federal Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area database, and some of them may have been shared with the National Security Agency though current state police officials claim none were entered into the official federal terrorist watch list. All of the victims are being sent letters notifying them of their inclusion in the database, and their information will soon be purged.
In defending the use of the program, Hutchins described its targets as "fringe people." Other than describing some of my family, I hadn't realized fringe was a criminal activity. But more to the point, What does Maryland know about terrorism? Does the Baltimore grocer from Pakistan's North Waziristan merit ending up on Maryland's terrorist list because he calls home every weekend?
The other day I got a call from a friend in Europe. He was both frantic and furious. He had just been turned back at New York's JFK airport and sent home on the first flight. He missed his son's wedding the son is an American citizen. The FBI at JFK was courteous but would only tell him he was on a terrorist list. Nothing the man could say helped. Was he on Maryland's list, now an undesirable alien and permanently excluded from the United States? Probably not, but in this era of secret evidence, who knows.
When you start to think about the vast digital databases that shadow our lives, the general incomprehension about the Middle East, and the readiness to blacklist people guilt by association you start to suspect George Orwell was right. And, incidentally, it doesn't have to be this way. Before 9/11, the FBI and CIA sifted through tens of thousands of terrorist leads every day. Ninety nine point nine per cent turn out to be bogus. The names never made it onto national master list and stayed in the raw files where they belonged. We missed 9/11, but not because the two San Diego hijackers were not on a list. We missed it because so many names float through Washington that their significance was missed.
Abusing the system like Maryland has is not going to improve our national security it is only going to irritate Americans who will rebel against it. Terrorism lists should be compiled by the FBI, and reviewed by an Congressionally-mandated, independent body to purge the names that shouldn't be on it. The United States does not do well as a police state, but it does even worse when local and state authorities get to decide who the enemies of this state are.
Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower