The anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has brought renewed attention to the role of the public in helping gather information suggesting a credible terrorist threat. Such reports can spur action that protects the public safety. Unfortunately, they can be also used in ways that violate constitutional rights. As state officials urge Mainers to speak up in the name of preventing terrorism, we should press them for greater transparency in the name of protecting our civil liberties.

The revival of Maine’s terrorism awareness program was announced Tuesday by state public safety officials, who linked the effort to a recently launched nationwide “see something, say something” initiative. The goal is to have citizens report suspicious behavior to 911 or their local police, who will forward the collected information to the Maine Information and Analysis Center.

One of 78 intelligence-gathering state “fusion centers” nationwide, the secretive agency made headlines last September when the Portland Press Herald found that there was little to no information available about the center’s budget, who makes up its staff and what they do. The agency doesn’t present its budget to the Legislature. A three-member oversight panel charged with ensuring that the agency didn’t overstep its bounds hadn’t met in years.

In the year since the story came out, the advisory panel has met, and it has asked the agency to submit the results of federal government audits. When the agency anticipates getting the audit results and presenting them for advisory panel review isn’t known. It’s also not clear whether the audits will be released to the public.

Mainers should press for as much transparency as possible, given that the renewed focus on terrorism prevention could encourage Mainers to report people just because they’re of a different race or religion. State officials emphasized Tuesday that that’s not the goal – a message that, we hope, has also reached Gov. Paul LePage, who’s identified people of color as “the enemy” in combating Maine’s drug addiction epidemic.

Public disclosure of the audit results is also essential to ensuring that the agency isn’t overstepping its mission. Any agency that receives public funding should be willing and able to discuss what it’s using that funding for, so policymakers and the public can weigh in on whether that money is being well spent.

It’s our responsibility as citizens to keep an eye on those charged with protecting us to make sure that we don’t sacrifice freedom for safety. Who watches the watchers? All of us should.


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