I-Team investigates Maine's secret intelligence agency
AUGUSTA (WGME) — The mission of an obscure intelligence agency in Maine is clear — to track terror and fight crime, but what's not so easy to grasp is how exactly Maine's Fusion Center works to keep you and your family safe.
The Fusion Center is an elaborate intelligence hub — gathering and sharing information. It's one of 78 spread out across the United States.
They were set-up after 9/11 to help fuse intelligence from multiple agencies, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. There are nine agencies all working together in Maine in one place.
But the country's Fusion Centers also feel the tension between protecting personal privacy and pursuing public safety.
According to reports reviewed by the I-Team, senate investigators and the Government Accountability Office have both been critical of Fusion Centers, flagging questions about secrecy, the scope of activities, and how the public's money is being spent. The ACLU is also among the critics.
"Anytime there's a massive amount of information collected, it could infringe on our privacy, our freedom of speech, our freedom association. The public needs to have some oversight of that," said ACLU of Maine's Zach Heiden.
Citing the Boston Marathon terrorist attack, a 2013 congressional report from the Committee on Homeland Security also concluded, "while much progress has been made, breakdowns in information sharing continue today."
According to a Homeland Security report obtained by the I-Team, all centers are now part of a performance program, measuring capability and auditing privacy policies.
"We don't do wire taps, we don't have cameras out there right now videoing people, we don't do that," said Fusion Center Director Lt. Scott Ireland,
While some monitors were turned off during our visit and we weren't allowed to go into a room used for encrypted and classified conversations, Lt. Ireland says a big part of his mission is to be transparent.
In fact, the 9-11 Commission Act requires Homeland Security to "adhere to a privacy and civil liberties policy that is consistent with federal, state and local law."
Former Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Dan Wathen is part of a three member oversight board.
He admits the board went years without meeting, but now they stop by the center unannounced for random inspections of electronic files to make sure information came from legal sources.
Wathen said he now believes that the Center, with proper oversight, performs a valuable function for empowering police and keeping you safe.
We're told Maine's Fusion Center operates with a budget of about a $1 million from state and federal sources.