Years of secrecy and a recent lawsuit have raised troubling questions about the Maine Intelligence and Analysis Center, an intelligence-gathering unit run by the state police.

Legislators this week finally sought answers but got little from Michael Sauschuck, commissioner of public safety, who was unable or unwilling to fill in the details.

Lawmakers — and the general public — deserve those details, and shouldn’t have to wait any longer. Legislators should take aggressive action to get them answered, and to put the unit under real oversight.

The unit is one of 80 so-called fusion centers created in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks to gather and share intelligence among local, state and federal law enforcement.

They were first focused on terrorism, but as that has become less of a priority they have switched to other areas, using the advanced technology built to chase terrorists for other tasks.

In his broad description, Sauschuck this week said that the fusion center is not an investigative agency. Instead, it analyzes intelligence and other data, often from public documents and social media, to determine if there is any danger to public safety.

For example, the commissioner said, the unit scrubbed social media in advance of recent protests to see what size crowd they could expect, and whether any participants posed a threat.

Sauschuck would not go into detail about what methods the unit used or how they were used. He did say the unit does not use facial recognition or cellphone tracking technology — a recent admission made only after sustained pressure from legislators and the press — though he said some of the unit’s partners around the country do.

Those and other powerful technologies are ripe for abuse, and they have been abused elsewhere.

In fact, a lawsuit filed last month by a longtime state trooper alleges that the fusion center violated the civil rights of Maine residents on a number of occasions, including through the illegal use and retention of personal information.

Sauschuck would not answer any questions related to the lawsuit, citing the ongoing litigation.

With no answers to these alarming allegations, and few on the unit’s basic operations, lawmakers have no choice but to dig deeper.

They should order an investigation that seeks not only to get to the bottom of the allegations in the lawsuit, but also to understand the day-to-day operations of the unit, including details on surveillance of residents not suspected of criminal activity.

It’s also worth asking whether the fusion center justifies its $800,000 annual budget, particularly when Sauschuck struggled this week to outline how it helps prevent crimes or make Maine more safe.

At the very least, the Legislature should increase the unit’s oversight. It’s 12-person advisory board is heavy with law enforcement. It includes the director the fusion center, and has only two public members, one a former prosecutor.

The unit needs a true independent oversight board, one that includes privacy advocates, and which has real authority, and an outside reporting mechanism.

This week’s hearing should have been an opportunity to clear up the questions surrounding the fusion center. Instead, its operations remain just as opaque as ever. For the sake of public safety and the public’s right to privacy, that shouldn’t go on any longer.


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