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Bill Would Gut Maine Spy Agency

DHS “Fusion Center” under fire for spreading far-right conspiracies, pushing racially and politically biased intel  

by | Mar 8, 2021

Far-right troll responds to a teen’s TikTok video (left) and a Twitter account hypes masonry materials as proof of a BLM plot.

A state lawmaker from Hallowell is pushing to abolish a secretive domestic intelligence agency whose methods and effectiveness have become increasingly questionable since last spring. The Maine Information and Analysis Center (MIAC), one of 80 “fusion centers” created after 9/11 by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to monitor terrorist threats, will be forced to justify its existence or lose most of its funding when hearings are held on Democratic Rep. Charlotte Warren’s bill later this session. 

“COVID has created economic difficulty within our state budget. We need to be reevaluating the purpose of every dollar we spend,” Warren said. “We need to ask if each expense delivers the intended results for Mainers. MIAC does not pass that test.” Most of MIAC’s $700,000 annual budget comes from the state; it also receives some federal funding.  

Last May, Maine State Trooper George Loder filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against MIAC in which he claimed the agency maintained an illegal database of gun-permit applicants, spied on people protesting Central Maine Power’s proposed transmission corridor (and shared that intel with CMP), and spied on staff and volunteers at the Seeds of Peace international youth summer camp, in Otisfield.  

In June of last year, the online activist organization Distributed Denial of Secrets published a massive trove of internal documents from fusion centers and police departments across the country, called BlueLeaks, that revealed the Maine agency was keeping close tabs on racial justice protests throughout the state, from big marches in Portland to small gatherings in towns.  

At the end of that month, Maine lawmakers grilled Public Safety Commissioner Mike Sauschuck about MIAC’s work. “Sauschuck did not know the answers to some relatively basic questions,” the Bangor Daily News reported, “including how much time the center spends on collecting information on organizations not engaged in criminal activity and how its advisory board is meant to operate.”  

“After hours of questions last summer … I still cannot understand how MIAC makes Mainers safer,” Warren said. “Trying to make sense of MIAC’s purpose is like attempting to grab smoke — not possible. We don’t need to be spending dollars to investigate citizens who have not committed any crime.”

Last July, Mainer exposed how MIAC was turning absurd rumors of left-wing violence, promoted online by far-right conspiracists, into official warnings sent to police departments all over Maine. 

For example, MIAC warned local cops that a TikTok video, made by a teenager riffing on a Jaboukie Young-White comedy bit about throwing water balloons at tanks, was “providing tactics, techniques and procedures on how to interfere with the US National Guard during riots.” 

Maine State Police Major Christopher Grotton, who formerly led MIAC and now helps administer the agency, defended the practice of sending such warnings to police. “No one is comparing a 19-year-old making a TikTok video to a terrorist threat,” he told Mainer last summer. “We’re just saying to tuck this in the back of your mind. Law enforcement is going to evaluate information for themselves.”

Another warning spread by MIAC concerned stacks of bricks being “prestaged” at protest sites, “an established tactic promoted in extremist anarchist literature” and practiced by “Antifa,” the report stated. This intelligence was based on a Facebook post by a pro-Trump biker with ties to a white nationalist hate group who calls himself The Wolfman. The bricks in the pictures look like any large, neatly stacked pallet of masonry materials delivered to a sidewalk construction site with a forklift.  

Brendan McQuade, a professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine who wrote a book about fusion centers, agrees with Warren that MIAC should be dissolved. He said MIAC’s dissemination of bad intel is “par for the course.” There are “similar levels of shoddy, unprofessional, indefensible intelligence, and speculative threats with political bias from other fusion centers,” McQuade said, adding “reporting that poor wouldn’t get a pass in my undergraduate class.”

In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 domestic terror attack on the Capitol, some politicians are calling for fusion centers and other domestic surveillance operations to be beefed up. McQuade, who’s delivering a public lecture and leading a panel discussion on police surveillance this week, thinks that’s the wrong direction to take.  

“Defunding MIAC says we don’t need it, and sends a message nationally,” McQuade said. “It would push back against the post—Capitol insurrection efforts in Washington to expand the war on terror and security state.”

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