A cache of internal police documents stolen from a secretive Maine State Police intelligence unit has provided the first substantial glimpse into how it collects and shares information about crime suspects and political activists and, in rare cases, keep tabs on domestic extremists, gang members and anti-government groups.

But the dump of Maine data – comprising thousands of reports, spreadsheets and photographs – still leaves many questions unanswered about some of the technical capabilities of the Maine Information and Analysis Center. The documents show that the so-called fusion center – created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks – has since morphed into a domestic crime-fighting unit that uses high-tech tools to assist other agencies.

The hacked information was stolen from a Houston-based web development firm, NetSential, that contracted with fusion centers and police departments around the country to develop and host an online portal for tip sheets, arrest reports and suspicious-activity bulletins. The documents were made public June 19 by a group called Distributed Denial of Secrets, a hacking collective that seeks to release information it deems is in the public interest.

The nationwide data dump spans more than 270 gigabytes of information, enough to fill a hard drive. Last week, at the request of the U.S. government, Germany seized a server containing copies of the hacked information.

But the documents have already been circulated online, and they are getting special attention in Maine. The state’s fusion center was already under intense scrutiny because of a federal whistleblower lawsuit that says it has illegally collected information about innocent citizens, including political activists and gun owners.

The cache includes thousands of files that range from reports about the spate of racial-justice rallies throughout Maine in early June to bulletins on criminal motorcycle gangs and potentially violent domestic extremists, to requests for help from local police departments seeking suspects in low-level drug and property offenses.

Privacy advocates have warned that groups such as the Maine fusion center, with broad access to police information systems and technology and sometimes skimpy oversight structures, are ripe for abuse.

Maine State Police say they retooled the oversight process and last year instituted an expanded board, adding a privacy attorney and a member of the public, and for the first time published board bylaws and its privacy policy. Lawmakers and privacy advocates, however, have been frustrated by the secrecy surrounding the center and what they say is a lack of public accountability.

The center’s director, Lt. Michael Johnston, said the policy reflects modern expectations of privacy and oversight, while balancing the need for confidentiality in the center’s work.

“I think you need to start with a recognition that you have things that are law enforcement-sensitive, that are either not appropriate by law or practice for the public to look at,” said Johnston. “But you still need to address that accountability and oversight piece. We need to provide some assurances to policymakers and the public and people like (journalists). … We’ve changed and we’ve evolved, and that’s reflective of us trying to keep up with best practices, and do things the best way we can.”

ROOTS IN COUNTERTERRORISM

Fusion centers were born from recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which found that in the run-up to the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, law enforcement and counterterrorism officials did not adequately share information that may have disrupted or prevented the attack, said David Carter, professor in the School of Criminal Justice and director of the Intelligence Program at Michigan State University.

Every state created its own intelligence unit that would smooth the flow of information among local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement agencies, Carter said.

“The primary focus of the original 50-state centers was counterterrorism,” Carter said.

In Maine, that has often meant anti-government groups, including Sovereign Citizens, deemed a domestic terrorist group by the FBI and whose adherents believe the U.S. government, police and courts are illegitimate. Groups of Sovereign Citizens have cropped up throughout the state, including in 2014, when then-Gov. Paul LePage met with a group aligned with Sovereign Citizens eight times.

Members of Sovereign Citizens have been known to impersonate police officers and generate false documents claiming broad authority, and sometimes the confrontations have resulted in violence around the country. Most of the bulletins involving Sovereign Citizens are distributed under the broad heading of “situational awareness” or “officer safety.”

In one bulletin from Jan. 27, a state trooper cited a man in Lamoine for driving with a suspended license, but the motorist asserted his constitutional right to travel. Several days later, the trooper returned home from a shift at work to find the man and his son standing on his porch, shouting at him.

The bulletin included photos of the men, a description of their vehicle, and identifying photos of them that appear taken from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles database of licensed drivers, along with their last known addresses.

In another case in February 2019, police distributed a bulletin declaring that an “Oxford County resident with sovereign citizen ideology, indicates a desire to form a militia in the Paris and West Paris, ME areas,” and also included that man’s photograph. Police had been called to his wooded, secluded residence for complaints of gunfire late at night and early in the morning, but police could only give him a warning for disorderly conduct because no other crimes were committed, the bulletin said.

SHIFT IN FOCUS

Nationally and in Maine, the balance of fusion center responsibilities has shifted over time away from foreign and domestic terrorism, and focused more on all criminal activity, Carter said.

“It was kind of an evolution, saying, ‘Man, we’ve got other crime problems we can deal with,'” he said.

Police agencies commonly contact the Maine center with requests for help identifying a person depicted in a photo, sometimes captured from a surveillance camera. Other pictures are taken directly by law enforcement, or appear to be pulled from Facebook or other social media sites.

The criminal investigations range in seriousness, from cases of suspected theft – one agency requested help finding a man suspected of stealing a $300 stuffed penguin from the Kennebunk service plaza on the Maine Turnpike – to efforts by drug officers to break up interstate trafficking rings. They also have involved tracking down a homicide suspect who may have fled the state.

Most of the requests involve some suspected criminal activity, although that is not always clear-cut.

In February 2019, a trooper stopped a vehicle with Massachusetts plates headed south on the turnpike in York. Police issued a bulletin saying one of the passengers was acting suspiciously because he refused to identify himself, and did not consent to having his photograph taken or his fingerprints scanned by police. Later that same day, the Maine Information and Analysis Center – or MIAC – distributed an update with his identity, and said he was suspected of being involved in narcotics trafficking, was a member of a gang and was wanted for three warrants for failing to show up to court.

In December, a 28-year-old man from Limestone made sympathetic posts on Facebook about a school shooter, Nikolas Cruz. The Facebook poster “has no vehicles registered in his name,” and police had not had contact with him in several years, so the officer asked MIAC for “any info” on him.

This photo taken in 2015 shows the Maine Department of Public Safety, home of the so-called fusion center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Sometimes federal agents request information, as well. In April 2018, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives asked the center to assist in an investigation of a person suspected of drug and gun violations. The bureau was looking for a report of “All (law enforcement) contact in Maine (basic workup) and any social media showing signs of activity or confirm possession of firearms” for the person it was targeting in an investigation.

Some of the hacked bulletins relate to serious crimes and shed light on the power of the technology available to the fusion center.

In one case, Caribou police were looking for a suspect in an attempted murder, and believed he may have fled back to Queens, New York. The police in Caribou asked MIAC to check if he had “run through any tolls,” ostensibly leveraging Maine’s EZ-Pass license plate reading technology. The suspect was later apprehended in Pennsylvania.

Most police officers, through the computers in their cruisers, can run searches for active warrants, driver’s license violations and criminal history information. But the MIAC supercharges those capabilities by linking into both government and privately held information sources, including vast databases of public information that have been scraped by large companies and compiled into searchable formats that allow police – or any paying customer – to learn intimate details about people’s lives.

With a click, police can find telephone records, financial filings, credit reports and other streams of data that may be too costly for local departments to pay to access themselves. While much of that source material in the databases may at its root be public information – bankruptcy records or property liens, for instance – that information is not always accessible online or grouped in one, easily searchable place.

“The private data brokers are kind of like the Wild West, they’re unregulated,” said Brendan McQuade, a University of Southern Maine professor who studies fusion centers. “There are some regulations about the government storing or using your personal identifying information, but there’s almost none when it comes to the private sector, so that’s why those databases are very valuable to law enforcement.”

Some private databases, for example, provide a unique ability to search for sightings of vehicles based on a network of license plate readers around the country.

In Maine, license plate readers are prohibited under state law, except for government use for toll collections and by law enforcement conducting investigations. But in other parts of the nation, tow trucks and repossession agents collect billions of license plate images as they drive around cities and towns throughout the United States, said Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to defending digital privacy and free speech.

Maass said that even though some of the information that fusion centers rely upon exists for anyone to read or digest, he still objects to the idea of police snooping on citizens, especially when they’re engaged in First Amendment activities.

“I think people don’t necessarily realize the stuff they put out there and where it might go,” Maass said.

MAINE SCRUTINY

The timing of the leak comes shortly after a state trooper from Scarborough filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit alleging that he suffered retaliation when he attempted to call out what he believed were privacy and legal abuses committed by the MIAC staff.

Maine Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck acknowledged during a recent legislative work session that the center does collect information about citizens not involved in criminal activity. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The trooper, George Loder, was previously assigned to a local federal anti-terrorism task force, and claimed that through his work with MIAC staff, he learned that MIAC was collecting information about political activists, including opponents of a massive transmission line project sought by Central Maine Power that would carry electricity produced in Quebec to  Massachusetts, and passed that information to CMP. He also alleged that the MIAC illegally kept a de facto registry of gun owners and spied on peace activists who run a camp in Maine.

Maine Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck has said he cannot respond to the allegations in the lawsuit, but acknowledged during a recent legislative work session that the center does collect information about citizens not involved in criminal activity. He said the information MIAC compiles in such cases would be available to anyone with an internet connection and social media access.

For instance, during the demonstrations following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, the center assembled and circulated a list with information about upcoming demonstrations around the state based on Facebook event listings and other social media posts.

But not all First Amendment-related conduct described in some of the MIAC reports is political in nature.

In March 2018, MIAC posted a bulletin about a man who had been involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment after he disrupted a church service. Although the man had a history of acting erratically and had been issued no-trespass warnings in multiple towns, he was not accused of any crimes, and the bulletin served to describe his hospitalization and suggest that he may own a knife. The report contained details about the man’s personal life and speculated about what may have triggered his disruptive behavior.

Another speech-related case involved a man who made threatening, anti-government, anti-Semitic statements online and promoted violence against first responders and military personnel because he believed they were complicit in faking large mass-casualty events. Although the bulletin noted that the man had a criminal history for misdemeanors in another state, and previously made non-criminal threats against a prosecutor and police, it did not say he was suspected of any illegal acts in Maine. The state’s criminal-threatening statute requires that a threat caused another person to fear bodily injury.

“This bulletin has been disseminated for situational awareness purposes only in light of his numerous traffic infractions and frequent interactions with law enforcement personnel,” the bulletin reads.

Each of the bulletins included a disclaimer, reiterating constitutional standards for police action. It reads in part: “At times the MIAC will report on First Amendment-protected activities in order to raise general situational awareness and protect the safety and security of persons participating in and observing such activities, the general public, and law enforcement personnel.”

The hacked documents do not directly confirm the specific allegations leveled in the federal whistleblower lawsuit. But the hack mainly represents bulletins for other police, so it’s still unknown what information MIAC retains internally that might confirm or refute the lawsuit’s claims.

MORE ACCOUNTABILITY WANTED

For an outside observer, judging the effectiveness of the Maine Information and Analysis Center has been difficult in recent years.

Even state lawmakers have recently questioned whether its annual budget – more than $800,000, including a $100,000 federal grant – could be better spent on other services.

The agency was founded in 2006 through an executive order by Gov. John Baldacci that also established a three-member oversight board. That board met sporadically, and there was scant public information posted online about its meetings or processes. There was also no mechanism to replace the board members.

“It was open-ended,” said retired Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, who was an original advisory board member. “It just said there were three of us, who were appointed as an advisory board. And there was no term. There was no beginning, no end. And so as the years went by, I said you really ought to formalize this in some way.”

It took several years of work to restructure and expand MIAC’s oversight board and rewrite its privacy policy, which is now publicly available online. The agency also added a regular privacy audit, in which a random sampling of the agency’s reports are filtered through standard questions.

Now, the group is composed of 11 members, mostly from government and law enforcement. The chief of state police, Col. John Cote, has authority to appoint some of them, including a member of the public with privacy law expertise; a member of the public with no experience in law enforcement; a county-level emergency management agency representative; and a representative from one of the state’s infrastructure sectors, among others.

The Maine attorney general, the homeland security adviser and an FBI agent also have seats.

Johnston, the center’s director, pushed back against the notion that the previous board was less than ideal.

“I can see why that would be viewed like that, but there’s always been a process in place,” Johnston said. “The advisory board is a unique process. It’s not something that exists in other areas of law enforcement. If we are making efforts to try to improve something, it doesn’t mean that something before was less than ideal, it just means that we could do something better.”

Jonhston said the board has complete access to the center’s work product upon request.

The member of the public who was asked to join the board is Michael Feldman, a real estate agent from Brunswick. In a phone interview last week, Feldman said he does not directly know anyone else on the board, but has become friendly with various police officers because he has served as a volunteer with the Special Olympics for more than two decades.

“I think they knew I got along well with police, and they also knew I was a liberal Democrat,” Feldman said. “We’d discuss things, and I think they said I was very fair.”

So far, the board is still finding its footing, he said, but its members’ goals are the same: to add a layer of accountability to a police unit that deals almost entirely in non-public information, Feldman said.

“If you get information on someone without proof but that they might be doing something of interest to public safety, how far do you disseminate that information while protecting their rights?” Feldman said. “I say it’s good to know law enforcement is out there trying to measure this, and see if people’s rights are being protected.”

Carter, who has studied fusion centers for years, said fraud or abuse of government’s data collection power is rare, but mechanisms for transparent operation are key to tamping down unwarranted fear by citizens that police are sneaking around in their private lives.

“To spy on someone, it’s a lot of work,” Carter said. “And for what purpose? But that paranoia and fear of it will only be aggravated if you don’t have oversight and transparency.”

On Wednesday, lawmakers are scheduled to debate a bill that would effectively require the fusion center and Maine State Police to be more transparent about their activities. The bill was introduced in response to a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram article about how the agencies will not reveal whether or not they use digital surveillance tools such as facial scanning technology that have raised concerns about privacy and reliability.

Some fusion centers have flung open their doors to lawmakers, journalists and privacy advocates, Carter said. While police may not be able to show the public the cases they’re working on, they would be able to show how they do their work.

“There are some people who are police leaders who have a little bit of a secrecy complex that is unwarranted,” Carter said. “There’s no reason for the tools and the processes to not be transparent. You’re not hurting anything, you’re not going to hurt cases if you talk about processes.”

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