AUGUSTA, Maine (April 19, 2021) – Last week, a Maine committee held a hearing on a bill that would defund the state’s only federal fusion center and significantly hinder the growing federal surveillance state. There was intense lobbying against the bill by police interests.
Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), along with a fellow Democrat, two Republicans and two independents, introduced House Bill 1278 (LD1278) on March 25. The legislation would totally defund the Maine Information and Analysis Center (MIAC). The bill would also eliminate state staffing for the center by cutting its four state police and two support employees from the state payroll.
In effect, LD1278 would shut down the state’s only fusion center.
MIAC is one of 78 fusion centers spread across the United States. While the states own and operate their fusion centers, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security facilitates and coordinates their activities. According to the DHS website, “The National Network of Fusion Centers is the hub of much of the two-way intelligence and information flow between the federal government and our State, Local, Tribal and Territorial (SLTT) and private sector partners. The fusion centers represent a shared commitment between the federal government and the state and local governments who own and operate them.”
On April 12, the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety held a hearing on LD1278. Unsurprisingly, the bill has been met with intense law enforcement opposition.
The Maine Chiefs of Police Association claims it will “make our job more difficult and time-consuming. The Maine State police claim, “All the critical work done in the MIAC occurs under a framework consisting of multiple layers of oversight, review and regulation to ensure that while protecting Maine people and the institutions in our communities we are at the same time observing their privacy, civil rights and civil liberties.”
But cops overstate the value of fusion centers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) calls fusion centers “another unnecessary cog in the surveillance state.” And the assertion that fusion centers operate in ways that protect private and civil liberties doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the MIAC is the subject of a federal whistleblower lawsuit. Maine State Police Trooper George Loder alleges that the fusion center kept an illegal database of gun owners, illegally surveilled peace activists, and regularly circumvented federal privacy laws.
IMPACT ON FEDERAL SURVEILLANCE PROGRAMS
The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through fusion centers and a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. By coordinating surveillance efforts across states, regions and the entire U.S. creates the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.
Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”
Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.
There have been numerous reports of abuses by fusion centers across the U.S.
A document pulled from the BlueLeaks trove reveals the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) collects automatic license plate reader (ALPR) information and stores it for up to a year, making it accessible to government agencies across the country. There have also been reports of fusion centers tapping into private security systems and police body cams. In a nutshell, the federal Department of Homeland Security uses fusion centers to silently and gradually converting local police agencies into regional subdivisions of the surveillance state.
Closing the state’s only fusion center would take one cog out of the federal surveillance apparatus and would strike a serious blow to the federal surveillance state.
The Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety needs to bring up LD1278 for a vote and pass it by a majority before moving forward in the legislative process.