Politics & Other Mistakes: Watching the detectives

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The state cops are spending $800,000 a year to spy on us.

Oops, sorry. I didn’t mean spy. According to what Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Sauschuck told a legislative committee recently, the secretive Maine Intelligence and Analysis Center, part of the Maine State Police, is actually using all that money to practice “open-source checks for situational awareness purposes.”

That’s a relief. Or it would be if that phrase meant anything. Let’s see if Sauschuck can come any closer to making sense.

“One of our primary goals from a law enforcement perspective is in fact to facilitate somebody’s First Amendment rights,” he told the committee, “to make sure that folks are safe.”

Who’s that somebody? And how does the MIAC “fusion center” keep that somebody safe? It’s hard to say. At least, it’s hard for the comprehension-compromised commissioner to say. He claims the center collects information only from publicly available sources. It’s just stuff that’s accessible to anyone with the computer skills of your Luddite grandmother.

How can that cost $800,000 a year? For far less, the staties could hire a couple of high-school hackers, who’d use their mad online abilities to dig up serious dirt on all of us. Lurid photos. Racist memes. Sicko podcasts. TikTok videos of your aforementioned grandmother dancing to laundry detergent jingles.

Our First Amendment rights wouldn’t be protected. But we’d save big bucks.

As it turns out, the center seems to be only marginally concerned with that civil-liberties stuff. Shortly after Sauschuck finished his testimony, a website called Distributed Denial of Secrets posted a huge trove of confidential documents from police departments nationwide, including hundreds of pages from the Maine center. What this data breach revealed is a muddled assortment of paranoid imaginings sprinkled with occasional bits of personal information on people who might – or might not – have committed crimes.

Sort of the same stuff you find on Reddit, only less well organized.

Under the heading of “Civil Unrest Daily Report,” Black Lives Matter demonstrations got a lot of attention, with at least some of this “intelligence” being factually inaccurate and most of the rest irrelevant. Protests of Central Maine Power Co.’s planned electrical corridor through western Maine were scrutinized (possibly because a CMP official sits on the center’s advisory board), although not a hint of criminality among the project’s opponents was uncovered.

Oddly enough, there’s nothing in these docs about the protesters who marched outside the Blaine House demanding the governor allow their businesses to reopen in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. And barely a hint of any concern about racists displaying nooses or plotting to turn part of Maine into a little whites-only paradise.

But don’t be mistaken in thinking the center has a right-wing bias. According to a whistleblower lawsuit filed by an officer who used to work there, his colleagues compiled lists of recent gun purchasers, which would be a violation of state and federal laws. They also spent a lot of time investigating participants and staff at the Seeds of Peace camp in Otisfield that brings youth from troubled parts of the world to Maine each summer. So far, the cyber-cops don’t appear to have unmasked any terrorists.

Speaking of terrorists, the whole idea behind fusion centers was supposed to be keeping us safe from them. But if the Maine operation is doing any of that it’s not apparent from the leaked documents. Nor did Sauschuck’s testimony shed any light on exactly how his staff is preparing to thwart the plots of evildoers.

All of this makes it difficult to conclude the center has any clue about illegal activities. It’s even more difficult not to conclude that, in the absence of evidence of any serious probing into the activities of real criminals, it’s wasting our tax dollars compiling dossiers on law-abiding citizens.

At its best, the Maine Intelligence and Analysis Center is useless. At its worst, it’s a serious threat to the civil liberties it claims to be protecting.

Defund this part of the police.

You might want to use encryption on any emails you send to [email protected].

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