Federal jurors awarded $300,000 in damages last month to a former Maine state police detective who was demoted after revealing that a joint federal-state intelligence operation gathers data on law-abiding people.
The verdict spurred state officials to review practices at the Maine Information and Analysis Center, part of a national network of "fusion centers" that gather domestic intelligence. It also brought new light to operations that have fueled civil liberties concerns since their creation after 9/11.
"George Loder claimed that his state police supervisors removed him from a federal task force and then denied him another detective job because he resisted orders to share information about his task-force work with the Maine Information and Analysis Center," noted Maine Public Radio. "He also voiced concern that the unit, part of a nationwide network of so-called fusion centers, retained information about lawful activity in violation of federal law."
"He specifically claimed that the center unlawfully gathered and maintained information about people who protested Central Maine Power's controversial transmission pipeline, people who applied to buy firearms, and counselors who worked at the Seeds of Peace summer camp in Otisfield," adds the Bangor Daily News.
Notably, officials admitted they gather information about people engaged in perfectly lawful activities, just as Loder alleged. They just denied there's anything wrong with the practice.
"It could be legal activity, but, in law enforcement, we have to prepare if it turns into something negative," Maine State Police Lt. Scott Ireland testified during the trial.
Jurors agreed with Loder that state officials broke the law by demoting him after he blew the whistle. They awarded him $300,000 in damages, while the judge in the case will decide what he's owed for back pay and benefits. State officials promise to pursue an outside review of intelligence-gathering practices.
In fact, fusion centers have repeatedly sparked concerns about the threat they pose to civil liberties. Those concerns extend across the entire country, since the Maine Information and Analysis Center is only one of many such operations under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security.
"The National Network of Fusion Centers is the hub of much of the two-way intelligence and information flow between the federal government and our State, Local, Tribal and Territorial (SLTT) and private sector partners," according to the DHS. It's that domestic intelligence role that worries people.
"Fusion centers have long produced flawed analysis, abused their authorities to monitor people engaged in First Amendment–protected activities, and leaked sensitive law enforcement information," according to a December Brennan Center for Justice report.
Authors Michael German, Rachel Levinson-Waldman, and Kaylana Mueller-Hsia point out that fusion centers directed much early energy to Muslims in the post-9/11 environment. Then, mission creep set-in and they turned their attention to a broader range of activists and activities.
"While the federal government initially promoted them as hubs for sharing counterterrorism information, fusion centers quickly expanded their missions to include any crimes or hazards."
Fusion centers issue bulletins to local, state, and federal agencies, setting law enforcement loose on whoever catches the notice of the powers-that-be. Their influence extends beyond the public sector.
"The participation of private companies, including some that have been the subjects of protests, in fusion centers raises the possibility that these operations sometimes serve private interests rather than public safety," adds the report. In the age of the Twitter files, it's just as likely that government wields private firms as tools of policy, surveilling customers or denying services for political reasons.
Of particular concern at a time when government officials rage against "misinformation" and "disinformation" that is often just disagreement with whatever opinions are currently popular among the political class, fusion centers frequently scrutinize peaceful dissenting speech.
"Over the last two decades, leaked materials have shown fusion centers tracking protestors and casting peaceful activities as potential threats," write German, Levinson-Waldman, and Mueller-Hsia. "Their targets have included racial justice and environmental advocates, right-wing activists, and third-party political candidates."
The Brennan Center isn't alone in finding fusion centers troubling. In 2012, the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations "could identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot." It did find that "DHS-assigned detailees to the centers forwarded '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."
The Senate report came five years after the ACLU warned that fusion centers "raise very serious privacy issues at a time when new technology, government powers and zeal in the 'war on terrorism' are combining to threaten Americans' privacy at an unprecedented level.
In 2014, the EFF revisited the issue and warned that "fusion centers have been used to record and share information about First Amendment-protected activities in a way that aids repressive police activity and chills freedom of association."
And now a federal jury finds that fusion center officials retaliated against a whistleblower who called officials out for gathering intelligence on peaceful Americans. The targets protested government policy or purchased firearms—activities protected by the First and Second Amendments.
Years after fusion centers were criticized for threatening civil liberties, and a decade after the U.S. Senate tagged the centers as ineffective and dangerous, these domestic surveillance operations have yet to mend their ways. If federal lawmakers were unable to reform fusion centers, it's unlikely that an outside review of the Maine Information and Analysis Center will have any impact at all.
The Brennan Center recommends more oversight to identify waste and rights abuses among the country's network of fusion centers. But the only reform that promises real results is to sweep away these domestic surveillance operations so that they can't continue to spy on the innocent and unleash law enforcement against people exercising their rights.