Maine lawmakers move to defund secretive police intelligence agency

Maine Beacon

A bipartisan group of lawmakers have launched a legislative effort to defund a state anti-terrorism agency, the Maine Information Analysis Center (MIAC), which came under scrutiny last year for closely monitoring political campaigns and peaceful protests and for distributing intel to its corporate partners.

State Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell), House chair of the Maine Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, introduced legislation on Monday to cut the $800,000 annual budget for MIAC, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security’s network of state-run “fusion centers” created after 9/11 to gather and disseminate intelligence to law enforcement and private-sector clients about potential terrorist threats. 

At a virtual public hearing on her bill, Warren said she was dissatisfied with answers given by MIAC Lieutenant Michael Johnston and Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck last year when asked by the Criminal Justice Committee about the agency’s contribution to public safety.

“Last summer during our joint hearings with the Judiciary Committee, former senator and now Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows asked Commissioner Sauschuck, and I quote, ‘What percentage of the fusion center time is being spent collecting information on groups that have never been involved in criminal activity?’” Warren said. “Commissioner Sauschuck answered, and I quote, ‘I don’t have specific percentages on their work product. We can try to drill down on that.’ I don’t know about you, but I really wanted that answer to be an unequivocal 0%.”

Warren added, “Why are we billing Maine taxpayers to pay the state to collect information on Maine people who are not committing any crimes and then reporting that information to corporations? Is that really the role of our government?” 

Some lawmakers began calling to defund MIAC after details began to emerge about the fusion center in May 2020 from a whistleblower lawsuit by Maine State Trooper George Loder, who alleged the agency collected information on activists and volunteers who were organizing against Central Maine Power’s proposed transmission as well as counselors with Seeds of Peace, a camp for young people from conflict areas. 

Months later, a data breach revealed that police were closely tracking anti-racist demonstrations that sprang up across Maine in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. They monitored locations, tactics, sponsors and likely attendance of rallies in so-called situational awareness reports titled “CIVIL UNREST DAILY REPORT.”

Reporting showed that several of MIAC’s intelligence reports were built upon unsubstantiated rumors started by extreme right-wing groups. Those dubious reports were then shared with the agency’s corporate partners, including CMP’s parent company, Avangrid, as well as Hannaford’s, ExxonMobil and Bath Iron Works and many other corporations in Maine.

Members of the Maine Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee during a public hearing on April 12, 2021.

“In 2012, the U.S. Senate permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a critical report on fusion centers. Investigators concluded that fusion centers produced intelligence of an uneven quality, oftentimes shoddy … and sometimes endangering citizens,” said Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), a co-sponsor of the bill. 

“The problems that the Senate identified nine years ago are still on display, including here in Maine,” she continued, citing the monitoring of Black Lives Matter protesters. “MIAC shared unsubstantiated social media rumors to depict protesters as violent and dangerous. While MIAC was busy laundering right-wing conspiracy theories as intelligence, police fired tear gas at racial justice protesters in Portland.” 

Talbot Ross added, “Fusion centers have monitored every major social movement in the past two decades. Police bias is a major problem and fusion centers exasperate it.”

A target of MIAC monitoring, Sandra Howard, principal officer of the No CMP Corridor PAC, testified Monday in support of the bill.

“MIAC monitored our protest, collected information on the attendees, and shared that file with Central Maine Power, the for-profit company behind the wildly unpopular project,” Howard said. “Coincidentally, or not, a CMP representative serves on the advisory board for MIAC.”

Republican state Sen. Richard Bennett (Oxford), a former Maine Senate president, and former Republican Rep. John Andrews (Paris), who is now a member of the Libertarian Party, are also co-sponsors of Warren’s bill, along with independent Reps. Jeffrey Evangelos (Friendship) and Bill Pluecker (Warren).

“This intelligence gathering agency is just one node in a national web of spy agencies with cozy relationships with multinational corporations,” Bennett said. “And even after facing serious questions with this committee, its leadership believes itself immune from justification, public scrutiny and legislative oversight.”

Lawmakers and civil liberties advocates like the Maine ACLU said that MIAC’s mission appears to have crept from anti-terrorism to surveiling innocent Mainers, many of them simply caught up in Maine’s “War on Drugs.”

Among MIAC’s files that were breached were “criminal incident reports” and “suspicious activity reports” filed by local law enforcement agencies that also included individuals’ sensitive information.

“These bulletins contain page after page of photographs, addresses and charges — not convictions — charges, many merely for possession of a drug or trafficking with no context provided and no identifiable reason for why these specific individuals were singled out or targeted,” said Whitney Parrish, director of advocacy and communications for the Health Equity Alliance. “The only discernible reason for these bulletins was to distribute this information to every law enforcement agency in the state, putting officers on notice — nothing short of a modern day rogues’ gallery.” 

Sauschuck, Johnston and members of the Maine Sheriff’s Associations spoke in opposition to Warren’s bill at the virtual public hearing on Monday. They dismissed criticisms of mission creep.

“Threats have evolved. Fusion centers have adapted,” Johnston said.

The Criminal Justice Committee will further vet Warren’s proposal to defund MIAC before voting on it.

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  • Sandra Howard
    published this page in News 2021-04-13 08:26:58 -0400