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Courts and Crime

Maine Fusion Center's Changing Name, Mission Raises Concerns

AUGUSTA, Maine – The state of Maine spends about $1 million a year to operate something called a "fusion center." It has nothing to do with nuclear energy.

It's actually a special computer analysis unit within the Department of Public Safety in Augusta that is focused on helping to solve crimes. Some lawmakers have questioned the center's budget and expressed concerns about secrecy.

A decade ago Congress established funding for so-called fusion centers to collect and analyze intelligence as part of the war on terror and to help combat other criminal activity.

Maine's fusion center has a new name: It's called the Maine Information and Analysis Center. Its mission has also changed, says state police Lt. Scott Ireland, who serves as its director.

"I think where the focus is right now — obviously the heroin problem is at an extreme point, so we will be focusing different efforts there," he says.

The state's $1 million a year funding for the ten-person staff and operations of the center is matched by more than a $1.5 million from federal sources. The agents work in cubicles with multiple computer screens and on the walls are large-screen TVs tuned to cable news stations.

A lot of the information reviewed by the analysts comes from newspapers and other news sources, as well as from from law enforcement and classified sources.

"This is our secure room so that if we have any information, classified information we need to receive to be briefed on, that is where we will go in, receive that information and meet in there," Ireland says.

He says the computer, phone and video connections are secured with encrypting technology and the room is lined with metal to prevent anyone from hearing or intercepting the communications and conversations in the room. The door is secured by both a keypad entry code and an old-fashioned combination lock.

With all that information kept behind closed doors, some are concerned about how it's being used.

"There is no doubt there is a benefit to law enforcement to share information and share resources," says Zach Heiden, legal director at the ACLU of Maine. "The only concern from our perspective is there be appropriate checks on that authority."

Heiden worries that the records compiled by the center could be used improperly.

"We are concerned about the mission of the fusion center and how clearly defined it is," he says. "We are concerned they may have access to large amounts of information about innocent people and we are concerned about the lack of ongoing oversight."

Maj. Chris Grotton of the state police, who was instrumental in setting up the center, says he understands that concern. But he says most of the more than 4,000 cases a year that come through the system do not generate stored files.

"This is an analytical and a communications center," he says. "It's an analytical operation and we deal with criminal cases, we deal with things that have a potential criminal nexus. We don't keep files when there is no criminal nexus."

And Bruce Fitzgerald, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, says the center, which his agency helps fund, still has an active antiterrorism role.

"If you see something, we want you to call and report suspicious activity, and I think no call goes unanswered here, so they want to know from the public if they see something that looks suspicious," he says.

But most of the calls these days are drug-related, and these are the cases that are taking up more and more of the efforts of the center's staff, made up of state and federal officers.

This week, the center is adding a full-time analyst from the National Guard's counter-drug program, which has been involved with center activities through analysts stationed in each of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency's regional offices.

Lt. Col. Darryl Lyon, the Guard's counterdrug coordinator, says his soldiers are not police and do not perform police roles.

"We assist those offices in the interpretation of the information they are receiving and we really work hard to take the burden of the sworn officer to do some of the administrativia that is needed to build a case," he says.

Ireland says while the center's activities have not been publicized, he disputes the suggestion that the agency operates in secret. And Grotton says he has personally given briefings to members of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Legislative leaders will consider a allowing a bill into the January session that would bolster oversight of the agency. There is an independent oversight board already on the books, but it hasn't met in years.