Legislators in Maine could vote as early as next week on the first bill in the country seeking to shut down a fusion center: the intelligence-sharing partnerships between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as private sector groups, that proliferated following the post-9/11 establishment of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The draft legislation aims to pull funding for the Maine Information and Analysis Center, known as MIAC, which has an $800,000 annual budget. The bill is one of several seeking to reduce the scope of policing in Maine and comes amid nationwide efforts to reduce funding for law enforcement, mostly at the local level.
The proposal also follows a whistleblower lawsuit by a veteran Maine state trooper who accused the MIAC of illegally surveilling racial justice protesters, environmental activists, and counselors at an Israel-Palestine peacebuilding camp, as well as maintaining an unlawful database of gun owners. Mainers’ interest in the fusion center further grew last summer, after the transparency collective Distributed Denial of Secrets published a huge trove of documents hacked from 251 police websites, including the MIAC’s. The documents, known as BlueLeaks, offered an unprecedented look into the work of fusion centers, which have remained largely shielded from public scrutiny despite costing taxpayers more than $336 million in 2018 alone, even after a series of reports denounced their wastefulness and abuses over the years.
State Rep. Charlotte Warren, the bill’s primary sponsor, told The Intercept in an interview that her constituents don’t want “our state police being paid to spy on citizens and collect data on citizens that have done nothing wrong.”
Warren first introduced legislation against the MIAC in 2015 but said the recent protests and disclosures about the center have made passing the legislation more urgent. “We should be spending hard-earned taxpayer dollars on initiatives that actually make us safe. … This does not meet that test.”
“From the days of its origins, the Maine fusion center has lacked the oversight, transparency, and proper accountability of a public agency.”
The proposal, which could come to a vote on Monday, faces firm opposition from law enforcement representatives and their supporters, but it has earned the backing of both progressives critical of policing and conservatives opposing government overreach. At a public hearing about the legislation last week, state Sen. Richard Bennett, a Republican co-sponsor, argued that “from the days of its origins, the Maine fusion center has lacked the oversight, transparency, and proper accountability of a public agency.”
Rep. John Andrews, a libertarian co-sponsor, called the MIAC “an illegal espionage Frankenstein” and blasted its surveillance operations. “The year may be 2021 but we continue to find ourselves moving towards a perpetual Orwellian 1984,” he said. “Having a state-run mass surveillance operation center whose activities can neither be confirmed nor denied is a danger to all of our civil rights.”
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees all fusion centers, did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Michael Sauschuck, the commissioner of Maine’s Public Safety Department, which oversees the MIAC. The MIAC’s director, state police Lt. Michael Johnston, declined a request for comment, citing the ongoing legislative process. Both men and a number of law enforcement representatives forcefully defended the work of the center at the hearing.
If successful, the Maine bill would set a precedent that could be replicated across the country. “I hope we can be the first domino,” Brendan McQuade, a professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine and author of a book about fusion centers, told The Intercept. “There hasn’t been any significant regulation passed in any state, or in the U.S. Congress, on fusion centers, and this is kind of surprising because fusion centers — if you talk to people in the intelligence community — have a bad reputation for being amateurs, they have a reputation for incompetence and abusive behavior.”
Fusion centers in a number of states and large metro areas have come under renewed scrutiny following the BlueLeaks revelations about their surveillance practices. As The Intercept previously reported, the hacked documents revealed how after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, federal law enforcement relied on fusion centers to stoke fears about “antifa” and “black racially motivated violent extremists.” When California was ravaged by wildfires last summer, documents disseminated through fusion centers revealed law enforcement had long fixated on the baseless speculation that “forest jihadis” may engage in arson attacks. And fusion centers regularly received intelligence prepared by private industry partners — including some monitoring environmental journalists.
In Minnesota, where protesters have once again taken to the streets following the police killing of Daunte Wright last week, legislators resisted a proposal to increase funding to the state’s fusion center and some are now considering a contrary effort to scale it back. And in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, also the site of large protests after last summer’s police shooting of Jacob Blake, local officials have called for an audit of the Southeastern Wisconsin Threat Analysis Center. Fusion centers in other cities and states have also come under fire, including over their collaboration with federal immigration enforcement.
Matt Guariglia, a policy analyst at the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which endorsed the Maine bill, credited the national conversation around police funding as well as the DDoSecrets hack for training the spotlight on fusion centers. “A lot of the momentum leading up to this is coming from the broader police abolition movement,” Guariglia told The Intercept. “But I definitely think that the renewed interest in fusion centers as a kind of toxic cog in the middle of the surveillance apparatus is absolutely due to the revelations from BlueLeaks, about what really happens inside, and what kind of intelligence is being ‘fused’ between the federal government and local police.”
Fusion centers are a product of the sprawling “war-on-terror” apparatus the U.S. built in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Ostensibly established as an effort to improve collaboration among law enforcement agencies, fusion centers were intended to pool information from a variety of public and private sources in order to produce intelligence reports on national security matters that could then be distributed to the Department of Homeland Security and local partner agencies.
The centers, which were initially funded through federal grants, ended up more than doubling DHS’s budget in the first decade of the agency’s existence. But they have little to show for their enormous cost: For the most part, the 80 fusion centers aggregate bulletins by other local, state, and federal agencies, monitor open-source information of dubious utility, and replicate reporting by the FBI.
In 2012, a Senate Homeland Security report concluded that the centers “often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS, and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever.” That year, the conservative Heritage Foundation recommended “streamlining” the number of fusion centers to 32. “The terrorist threat is not high and the financial support is too thin or could be allocated more effectively,” the group wrote then. In 2015, a scathing review by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn found that, despite spending nearly $544 billion since launching in 2003, DHS had delivered on none of the goals at the core of its mission. “DHS’s intelligence and analysis programs, including its state and local fusion centers and other information sharing programs, are ineffective or providing little value,” the senator’s 162-page report concluded.
Since fusion centers were established in the early 2000s, the cost of keeping them running has largely fallen to states. The MIAC is funded mostly through the state’s general budget and a highway fund — at a cost to taxpayers of about $1.5 million over two years. Estimating the total cost of its operation is a challenge, however, because the state’s police budget also covers additional costs for the technology the MIAC deploys and because officers from a variety of agencies work out of the center.
Though DHS can audit fusion centers, their day-to-day operation is usually left to state or local police. The MIAC has a self-appointed oversight committee made up largely of former law enforcement officials. Since its founding, there has been little scrutiny of its work, and no details about the board’s makeup or minutes of their meetings were made public until 2019, more than a decade after the center’s founding.
“There is no oversight,” said Warren, the bill’s primary sponsor, who sits on the state’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “We have asked for over a year now, in every way we can frame the question, show us what your metric is. How do you make Mainers safer? They are unable to answer that question; therefore they are not deserving of government funding.”
At last week’s hearing, Johnson, who runs the MIAC, admitted that the center’s achievements can be “difficult to quantify.” He cited the center’s recent role in coordinating between different agencies to track down a 16-year-old girl, who had left the state with an individual convicted of a sex offense, as an example of its effectiveness. “Ask yourself whether Maine people are better served with law enforcement and the private sector being less informed and communicating less,” Johnson said.
Until recently, few people in Maine had an understanding of the MIAC’s work. That changed after George Loder, a 26-year veteran of the Maine State Police, sued the center and its supervisors in federal court last May, claiming that he was retaliated against after raising questions internally about the center’s data collection and retention practices.
Loder accused the MIAC of monitoring protests against a controversial transmission line project and sharing that information with the company overseeing the project, Central Maine Power, one of whose executives sat on the center’s oversight committee. He further accused the center of conducting social media surveillance and retaining the private information of individuals “engaged in constitutionally protected activity such as participating in a lawful protest or purchasing a firearm,” according to the complaint. The center also collected data on people associated with the Seeds of Peace summer camp for Israeli and Palestinian youth, without any nexus to criminal activity, he claimed.
At last week’s hearing, Sauschuck, the public safety commissioner, defended the MIAC’s monitoring of noncriminal activity and mentioned the center’s role in preparing for protests planned at statehouses across the country following the attack on the U.S. Capitol. (No such protests materialized in Maine). Sauschuck also referred to the sharing of intelligence about “domestic violent extremism” as a key role of fusion centers.
“To think that there would be 80 fusion centers spread across the country that are geared to share information back and forth in a fluid and timely manner, and have the state of Maine be a gaping black hole for the lack of information sharing, is scary,” said Sauschuck. “To lose that information sharing and the opportunity to vet information as it comes in, I think it would be a major, major detriment to all of our communities.”
“It is enormously difficult to hold law enforcement institutions accountable in the judicial branch.”
Last month, a federal judge dismissed the portions of Loder’s complaints relating to the MIAC’s practices on technical grounds, citing qualified immunity and the federal government’s limited role in running the center. Despite the fact that the judge did not rule on the merits of his allegations, Sauschuck emphasized the ruling during the hearing, dismissing Loder’s claims as a personnel matter.
Michael Kebede, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, pushed back on that characterization. “It is enormously difficult to hold law enforcement institutions accountable in the judicial branch,” Kebede told lawmakers at the hearing. “That is why we come before the legislative branch; that’s why you must act to protect our civil liberties.”
A month after Loder’s lawsuit, DDoS released 2,961 files taken from the MIAC’s website, dated between 2016 and June 2020. The BlueLeaks dump confirmed Loder’s claims that the MIAC gathered intelligence on individuals with no connection to criminal activity.
The files revealed, for instance, that despite claims it vets the intelligence it receives, MIAC analysts disseminated false rumors about Floyd protesters planning violence, based on information gleaned from the social media posts of right-wing conspiracy theorists.
In one such report, first uncovered by the Mainer News Cooperative, the MIAC distributed other agencies’ warnings, based on anonymous social media postings, that “antifa” might be placing bricks at protests to fuel violence. Sources for the claim included a Facebook post by a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist and an anonymous Twitter account called @Marlene45MAGA. “Twitter user claims piles of bricks are being staged around the United States to fuel violent opportunists in major cities. Source claims that this is a tactic, technique, and procedure (TTP) being used by … Antifa,” a MIAC analyst wrote. The MIAC also disseminated an FBI alert warning of “violent agitators” in the early days of the Floyd protests, citing as a source protestjobs.com, a parody website set up “as a joke to mock right-wing conspiracies about paid leftist protesters,” Mainer News Cooperative reported.
The BlueLeaks files also exposed the redundancy of much of the MIAC’s work, which largely replicates and disseminates other agencies’ alerts about drug and property-related crimes. The documents highlight how fusion centers have long moved beyond matters concerning national security to more generalized surveillance. In Maine, which has one of the highest opioid-related overdose death rates in the country, that surveillance largely focused on drug users and low-level dealers.
In a 2018 report, the MIAC found “no specific, credible intelligence to indicate a terrorist threat to the state of Maine” and concluded instead “that heroin and opioids present the most significant near term drug threat to public health and public safety.”
Documents hacked from the MIAC website include warnings about individuals with mental health or addiction issues, McQuade wrote in an analysis of the files. For instance, a bulletin by the Maine Department of Corrections, shared by the MIAC, called on the center’s law enforcement partners to “be on the lookout” for a “wanted juvenile” who left a group home for people with “mental illness and/ or intellectual disabilities.” Another warned about a “Transient Maine (ME) resident with history of mental health issues as well as violent and threatening behavior.” Yet another alerted officers about an “Armed … Maine (ME) resident living in the woods … reportedly suffering from mental health issues.”
The documents also reveal that the MIAC had received local police reports about Jesse Harvey, a recovery advocate and founder of the faith-based program Church of Safe Injection, who had earned the nickname “Narcan Jesus.” McQuade characterized the work of Harvey — who died last September of a possible overdose — as both an effort to find a legal loophole to distribute clean hypodermic needles and naloxone (an opioid overdose reversal drug) and as a “political challenge to the criminalization of the opioid epidemic.” But in the eyes of police, Harvey’s advocacy was unlawful. In bulletins shared with the MIAC, local police warned: “HARVEY is NOT affiliated with a needle exchange organization and therefore, it is not legal for HARVEY to be handing needles out.”
At last week’s hearing, Winifred Tate, director of the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College, also criticized the MIAC’s focus on drug interdiction efforts that have long failed to curb the public health impact of drugs. “I have interviewed many people like those whose mugshots are circulated by the MIAC,” she told lawmakers, noting that the mugshots the center distributed were often of people accused of drug-related crimes, not convicted of them.
The public health and safety threats posed by drugs are precisely what those calling for a reduction of police’s role in society have long argued should not be a matter for police at all. Central to the notion of “defunding police” is the idea that public resources should be reallocated to meet communities’ needs, and that a divestment from police budgets must come with a parallel investment in initiatives, including recovery and harm reduction programs, that have been proven to work.
Maine legislators are trying to do that. In addition to the legislation defunding the MIAC, lawmakers are also considering a slate of related bills aiming to decriminalize drug possession, cut the budget of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in half in order to fund community-based drug treatments, and close Maine’s last youth prison.
Defunding the MIAC, Tate argued, would allow the state to fund more effective programs than one “recirculating mugshots of poor people in Maine who are caught up in substance use disorder and find treatment unavailable to them. … The money we are spending on failed policing efforts like the MIAC means that we cannot spend that money where it is needed.”