Lt. Michael Johnston explains the role of the Maine Information Analysis Center during a tour of the offices in Augusta on Thursday. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Officials who oversee the secretive Maine State Police intelligence unit that’s come under intense scrutiny in recent months attempted to demystify its activities during an information session with reporters on Thursday. They went into greater detail about its activities than during a legislative hearing last month but skated around certain questions that drilled into specific examples of its performance and activities.

They took questions for several hours in an Augusta conference room just down the hall from the Maine Information and Analysis Center, which some have said is infringing on people’s privacy and represents an overreach of police surveillance.

In May, a Maine State Police trooper alleged the so-called fusion center illegally spied on residents and maintained an unlawful gun registry, which prompted Maine Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck to answer tough questions from lawmakers. Then, hackers exposed hundreds of documents that shed greater light on its role in monitoring such things as lawful protests and suspicious social media posts.

Measuring MIAC’s performance

Analysts who work at the fusion center do not investigate crimes or arrest people. Rather they analyze and share information with police that they obtain from the public, other law enforcement agencies or through publicly available sources, such as social media. Though the unit was initially established to help state and federal agencies share intelligence information to aid in the prevention of terrorism, it has since evolved to also play a role in more everyday crimes and police activities.

But there is no formal way of evaluating how effective it is in helping law enforcement, such as how often it shares information that results in a prosecution or prevents a crime, said Lt. Michael Johnston, director of the Maine Information and Analysis Center. And he didn’t specifically answer a question as to whether it would adopt performance metrics for itself after lawmakers questioned last month how the fusion center justifies its $800,000 annual budget.

“We are always open to ways to improve and to have a conversation and engage with people about how we can make things better. I think we have some very good processes and procedures in place,” Johnston said.

Lt. Michael Johnston explains the role of the Maine Information Analysis Center during a tour of the offices in Augusta on July 30. Credi: Natalie Williams / BDN

Instead, the lieutenant said the fusion center regularly reaches out to other law enforcement entities for feedback. That isn’t documented but is “one of those organic things where you’re reaching out and you’re talking to people,” he said.

“We actively engage through various methods with our law enforcement partners. How are we doing? Tell us how we’re doing,” he said.

Further, the center’s myriad roles can make it harder to quantify its effectiveness, Johnston said. Its analysts assemble and pass along informational bulletins, aid smaller departments in crime analysis and receive and share intelligence.

“When you’re trying to provide information to provide a context or situational awareness, not everything you say is going to [translate to], ‘Shared information on X resulted in an arrest on Y,” he said.

He shared two examples Thursday in which the fusion center alerted law enforcement to troubling Facebook posts. One involved a man who posed with a variety of guns and made allusions to a mass shooting. He was later arrested. In another instance, a man claimed in a post that he was going to sexually abuse his daughter.

But they didn’t appear to persuade Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, who oversees public safety issues and attended part of Thursday’s presentation.

“I bet there were 40 people who also reported that [post] to local police,” she said of the man who threatened the sexual abuse. “When I think about how much money a year we’re spending on this information center, where it seems like everything you’ve shared with us today is also being done by lots of other organizations, to me, I can’t seem to get in my head how this separate $800,000 is adding something of value.”

She added, “What is it that you actually do that’s not being done by other organizations?”

Protests

The center’s monitoring of protests has raised some of the sharpest questions about whether its work infringes on people’s First Amendment rights and whether people are targeted based on their political beliefs. Last month’s hacking showed the center distributing informational bulletins on the anti-racism protests in early June following the police killing of George Floyd.

On Thursday, officials repeated that they tracked protests to ensure the safety of people gathering in large groups, but they demurred on defending why certain details were included, such as rumors about possible threats that one reporter said could be debunked with a simple Google search. Johnston said he wasn’t aware of the example being cited and was willing to follow up on it.

The leaked documents, titled “Civil Unrest Daily Report,” mostly included details on where protests were taking place, how many people were expected to attend and descriptions of demonstrations that had already taken place. (For example, one said, “Protest organizers encouraged attendees to go home, however it is believed that this was a tactic to delay so that nefarious actors could regroup.”)

Sauschuck, the commissioner, said the center did not assemble daily reports about the protests decrying coronavirus-related economic restrictions because they didn’t occur at the same size and scale as the protests against racism and police brutality, nor did the center receive as many reports about the events.

The center does not keep individual files on people, Johnston said.

Oversight

Last year, the center’s advisory board that had been inactive began meeting again last year and performing audits, which are now online, on the fusion center’s activity. Johnston touted it as a way the center enables oversight and feedback, arguing that the board’s composition of mostly police and government officials doesn’t hinder those goals.

During the audit process, which has been conducted twice since the fall, the center’s director, deputy director and privacy officer reviewed a selection of random documents to ensure the center isn’t collecting information that infringes on privacy, civil liberties or stems from an individual officer’s bias. The reviewed documents are not public, but descriptions of them are.

“The records accounted for an investigation that resulted from a report of an overheard conversation that sounded suspicious. Investigation showed the conversation was substantially misunderstood by the person who overheard it,” one description reads.

The audits and board meetings represent the only formal oversight of the fusion center’s activities. The board is almost entirely made up of law enforcement and government personnel, including Johnston, the center’s director. Six other law enforcement officials, including the chief of the Maine State Police and Maine’s attorney general, two emergency management officials, a private attorney and a member of the public sit on the board.

“I understand I’m asking you to take our word for it and trust us, but understand that the advisory board is a very unique process that doesn’t exist for other law enforcement agencies,” Johnston said. “We bring them behind the curtain and show them everything,” including confidential law enforcement information, to get feedback.

It’s unclear why a previous iteration of the board stopped meeting sometime after it was established in 2006. Johnston, who joined the unit in 2016, said it was reinstated when the board was updating its privacy policy last year.

Last month, the board decided it would provide a more thorough description of the reports it reviews during its audits.