History of police espionage 101 E-mail
Written by Dennis M. Sweeney   

Maryland State Police didn’t do their homework before they started spying on peace activists and anti-death-penalty groups. If the amateur spymasters had read up on their Maryland law enforcement history before launching this escapade, they might have had a good laugh and learned a thing or two.

They would have discovered that similar surveillance efforts went awry for a state law enforcement unit that included troopers more than a half-century ago. In 1950, Maryland voters approved by referendum a law, named for its author, prominent Baltimore lawyer Frank B. Ober, that was designed to fight the threat of communism on the state level by making “subversive activity” subject to criminal prosecution. After some lengthy court challenges to the law failed, a Subversive Activities Unit was created in the Attorney General’s Office and staffed by an assistant attorney general with investigators from the State Police and Baltimore Police Department.

The unit was charged with investigating and collecting information relating to the Communist Party or other subversive organizations or people and to keep records on the loyalty of any person suspected of being subversive. By July 1952 the head of the unit announced that it had developed files on 600 Marylanders and, in an ironic early affirmative action effort, it hired two African-American investigators so it could infiltrate groups in black neighborhoods.

By 1953, the unit was well on its way to becoming one of the largest units in the Attorney General’s Office – until a Sunday evening in May. That night, a local group associated with the World Federalist Movement, which advocated an expansive role for the newly created United Nations, held a meeting at the Lyric Theater attended by 500 local people. The speakers for the evening were the rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church on St. Paul Street, a rabbi from New York and the head of a Catholic lay organization.

According to the Sun papers the next day, the chief investigator for the Subversive Activities Unit and two of his assistants were observed in a darkened entryway across from the Lyric recording the license plate numbers of the cars arriving for the meeting. They were later seen sitting in the theater making notes on those who were introduced or spoke at the meeting. In an unwise move, the chief investigator approached a Sun photographer who was covering the meeting and asked him to photograph everyone who spoke or was introduced.

The investigator then flashed the photographer his badge and explained that he suspected that there may have been Communists at the meeting. The ham-handed efforts of the investigators were fully reported in the Sun the next day, and the reaction was swift and overwhelming. Gov. Theodore McKeldin said he was “distressed and shocked” by the unit’s methods.

Attorney General Edward D.E. Rollins quickly said he “disapproved” of the methods used. In an editorial, the Sun accused the Attorney General’s Office of “obnoxious eager beaverism,” perhaps the only time that phrase has ever been used. Shortly thereafter, the chief investigator left the unit, saying he couldn’t see how he could do his job without violating the U.S. Constitution.

The unit never recovered. Later that year, it sent referrals of 17 individuals to the Baltimore state’s attorney for criminal prosecution, but no prosecutions ever went forward. The unit was soon pared back to a skeleton staff that did little more than clip items from the newspapers and file an annual report.

The unit officially died in 1978 when the Ober law was repealed with no prosecution under it ever coming to fruition. This sorry chapter of Maryland history should have been an object lesson to the State Police when the idea arose to surveil the anti-death penalty and peace groups. Perhaps next time, law enforcement leaders will better understand the lessons history provides.

Dennis M. Sweeney is a retired Circuit Court judge in Howard County and a former deputy attorney general. His e-mail is This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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