Secretive Police Unit Gathers Information On Maine Citizens
Above photo: Tom Saviello speaks at a rally in February after a group opposed to CMP’s proposed transmission line from Canada submitted more than 75,000 signatures calling for a statewide referendum on the project. Say No to the New England Clean Energy Corridor, the nonprofit that has fought the project, allegedly was targeted for surveillance by the Maine Intelligence and Analysis Center. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press.
Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck says the so-called fusion center gathers intelligence on citizens involved in legal activities, including protest organizers, but ‘we’re not spying on people.’
A secretive unit of the Maine State Police does gather information about groups and organizations even when they are not suspected of crimes, including people who are participating in protests, a top law enforcement official told lawmakers Wednesday.
Michael Sauschuck, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, testified at a joint legislative hearing about the Maine Intelligence and Analysis Center, which is at the center of a federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by a state trooper. The trooper had been assigned to the center and says he was retaliated against after reporting that the intelligence unit illegally used surveillance tools to monitor innocent citizens.
Those allegations raised concerns among lawmakers and civil liberties advocates and prompted groups that were allegedly targeted by the center’s surveillance to demand details about the activities. Sauschuck refused to directly respond to the allegations in the lawsuit during his legislative testimony Wednesday, but he acknowledged under questioning that the center does gather intelligence on citizens, including groups that organize public protests.
“We’re not spying on people,” Sauschuck said. “This is public information that is readily available.”
The Portland Press Herald first reported that the Maine State Police might be using powerful new technologies to scan your face and intercept your cellphone signals, and don’t have to tell the public because of an unusual provision in state law. That secrecy is raising alarms among privacy advocates in Maine, who worry that law enforcement could be using advanced technology to monitor residents, including those who are not suspected of any crime.
The legislators on the Judiciary, and Criminal Justice and Public Safety committees spent more than two hours asking questions about the so-called fusion center, which is overseen by the state police but combines the resources of local, state and federal agencies. They tried to understand the scope of its work. They questioned whether its annual budget – more than $800,000, including a $100,000 federal grant – could be better spent on other services. They asked about oversight, including a board that until recently only had three members.
“Can you please in a future meeting draw a direct line between all of this information gathering and the prevention of crimes against a person?” asked Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop. “It’s your argument that this information gathering helps to keep us safe. Prove it.”
The center has revealed little about its activities, sometimes saying disclosures would compromise its investigative methods. Sauschuck has said in the past that the center has used facial recognition scans as part of some criminal investigations, although officials have refused to provide any details of how it uses digital surveillance tools.
On Wednesday, Sauschuck said repeatedly that the center is not an investigative agency, and its employees do not seek warrants or conduct cellphone surveillance. He described its focus as analyzing open source information, such as public documents or social media profiles.
Still, he did confirm that the fusion center has collected information in advance of protests and rallies. He said that work is important for “situational awareness,” and he used the example of trying to estimate the size of a gathering by looking at the attendance on a Facebook event.
“What I’ve always thought as a police chief and now as a commissioner is one of our primary goals from a law enforcement perspective is in fact to facilitate somebody’s First Amendment rights, to make sure that folks are safe,” said Sauschuck, the former police chief in Portland.
Sauschuck did not describe in further detail what the employees at the fusion center actually do to gather that information. But legislators returned to that topic repeatedly in their questions.
“The agency is not developing profiles or gathering information about specific participants in these lawful movements?” asked Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship.
“No, we are not,” Sauschuck responded.
“What percentage of the fusion center time is being spent collecting information on groups that have never been involved in criminal activity?” Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, asked later.
“I don’t have specific percentages on their work product,” Sauschuck answered. “We can try to drill that down.”
Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, returned to that question later.
“I would have thought the answer would have been zero percent, and I am curious as to why that was not the answer provided,” he asked.
“We do conduct open source checks for situational awareness purposes,” Sauschuck said, adding that he could try to get more information for the committee.
“You explained that with regard to protests,” Harnett. “But are you saying you collect open source information and provide it to other law enforcement agencies, even if the organization has never engaged in criminal activity or has been suspected of engaging in criminal activity?”
“Yes, yes, absolutely,” Sauschuck said. “I would expect agencies are doing that on their own, but if they do ask us for feedback or something that we know about that event, we would share that open source information, that publicly available information with other entities. That is correct.”
Sauschuck also said the center participated in the “See Something, Say Something” campaign, which involves making reports of suspicious activity like terrorism to federal agencies. Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, asked about any policies to protect against racial profiling in that information gathering.
“What is within this policy that ensures that you are mitigating racial profiling in it, that you are taking the steps to ensure that the public is not just spying on Black people?” asked Talbot Ross, who is Black. “’See Something, Say Something,’ has historically gotten us lynched in this country.”
Sauschuck said the center is not involved in responding to 911 calls, and supervisors vet reports of suspicious activity. He said the “See Something, Say Something” campaign is different from routine dispatches.
“Being Black in America, they’re the exact same thing,” Talbot Ross responded.
The spokesman for the Maine State Police did not respond Wednesday to a request for more information about Sauschuck’s testimony and the center’s intelligence gathering.
Gov. Janet Mills’ office also did not reply to a request for the governor’s response to the testimony.
Among the groups the fusion center focused on, according to the federal whistleblower lawsuit, was Say No to the New England Clean Energy Corridor, a nonprofit that has demonstrated against the controversial Central Maine Power transmission line project.
The group’s director, Sandi Howard, sent a letter to the governor a month ago asking for the release of any information gathered about their group.
“CMP and the Mills administration still haven’t told us if our information was gathered,” Howard said after the hearing Wednesday. “They also haven’t told us if any gathered information was shared with CMP, as has been alleged. … Now is the time for CMP and the Mills administration to tell us exactly what happened.”
Mills has not responded to questions about those allegations, but has said she is willing to work with lawmakers who want more transparency and accountability.
The legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said the committee was right to express concern about that information.
“The police have no business snooping around on people’s Facebook pages,” Zachary Heiden said. “That’s not why people share information on social media, and that’s not why we have police.”
The civil liberties organization has called for further investigation of the fusion center.
“As popular momentum moves to divest from law enforcement and invest in communities, Mainers have a right to know whether their tax dollars are supporting illegal government surveillance,” Heiden said. “With more information, Mainers can make an informed decision about whether that is how they want their money spent.”
Staff Writer Reuben Schafir contributed to this report.