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Brendan McQuade is an assistant professor in the criminology department at the University of Southern Maine and author of “ Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision.”
On Monday, Maine legislators will be holding a hearing on a bill to close the state’s fusion center, the Maine Information and Analysis Center (MIAC). This will be the first time legislators in any state have considered closing a fusion center. It could have major implications within and beyond Maine.
Today, there are 80 fusion centers. These interagency intelligence were created to “fuse” together disparate streams of information — government databases, private data brokers, and social media, among other sources — into useful intelligence to disrupt terrorism and solve crimes.
Over the years, non-partisan government auditors, civil libertarian organizations the ACLU and the Constitution Project have criticized fusion centers and called for reform. In 2012, a scathing U.S. Senate report concluded that fusion centers produced “‘intelligence’ of uneven quality — oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.” After this rebuke, the conservative Heritage Foundation recommended “dramatically reduc[ing] the number of fusion centers” to 32 because the “terrorist threat is not high and … financial support is too thin or could be allocated more effectively.”
Despite these demands for reform, there has been no meaningful action on fusion centers until dramatic events put the question on the agenda of the 130th Maine State Legislature. In May, a whistleblower alleged that the MIAC spied on activists and illegally maintained a database of gun owners. The scandal deepened in June, when Distributed Denial of Secrets, a WikiLeaks-like transparency organization, published 5 gigabytes of MIAC data as part of #BlueLeaks, 269 gigabytes of police data hacked from 251 websites.
The initial reporting on the leaks confirmed some of the whistleblower allegations and focused attention on a series of “civil unrest” reports on the racial justice protests that swept the nation and Maine in early June. These intelligence assessments assembled open-source information and presented them with reports from other fusion centers and FBI field offices. All of these reports warned of “possible prestaged bricks” and paid protesters. Subsequent reporting debunked these sensational claims, tracing them to social media rumors from a pro-Trump biker and obviously satirical websites.
Now, a bipartisan group of legislators is working to close the MIAC. Democratic Rep. Charlotte Warren introduced LD 1278, An Act to End the Maine Information and Analysis Center Program and secured Democratic, Republican, independent and Libertarian co-sponsors. This proposal brings together unlikely allies like Assistant Majority Leader of the Maine House Rachel Talbot Ross, the first Black woman to serve in the Maine Legislature and the first Black legislative leader in Maine history, and Rep. John Andrews, an “arch conservative” that defected from the GOP to join the Libertarian Party in December 2020.
If passed, the bill will have major implications. Within Maine, it could help inaugurate a new political agenda focused on meeting needs, not criminalizing behaviors. The proposal to shut down the MIAC joins other bills to decriminalize drug possession, cut the budget of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in half to fund community-based drug treatment, and close Maine’s last youth prison.
There are also national implications. The events leading up to this proposal have parallels across the country. In September, a whistleblower complaint from Brian Murphy, a senior Department of Homeland Security official, charged that DHS leadership blocked the dissemination of some intelligence reports and modified others — all for transparently political reasons. Moreover, journalists across the country — many with The Intercept and others with independent media — have mined #BlueLeaks for exposés on civil liberties violations and police surveillance.
National organizations are watching Maine. The Electronic Frontier Foundation endorsed LD 1278, which could become a proof-of-concept for similar actions across the country. Shutting down the MIAC could be the first domino to fall. It could be part of an important and needed reform in Maine and across the United States.