AUGUSTA –– The cops call it the MIAC, a small, secretive agency within the Department of Public Safety. It’s known officially as the Maine Information and Analysis Center, and the state’s public safety commissioner announced last week that it’s expected to play a critical role in Gov. Paul LePage’s effort to disrupt the state’s drug trade.

Outside of law enforcement circles, most people have never heard of this obscure intelligence enterprise.

There’s no information available about its budget. The exact location of its offices is unclear. And public safety officials won’t disclose which state, federal or other law enforcement departments contribute to its staffing.

Even those who are charged with ensuring that the agency doesn’t dig too deeply into Mainers’ personal lives know very little about it.

The center was set up to operate with input from a three-member advisory board that includes Daniel Wathen, a former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Wathen said last week that years have passed since the board met and tried to evaluate the center’s activities.

“It was rather hard to get your hands around what they were actually doing,” Wathen recalled.

The MIAC website says the agency is located at 45 Commerce Drive, a monolithic building that includes the Department of Public Safety, the Maine Emergency Management Agency and the Maine Department of Labor. But there are no signs or directories in the building that disclose where the MIAC office might be found. The agency’s budget, staffing and activities are neither readily available to the public, nor subject to local scrutiny. That’s because MIAC is a “fusion center,” one of nearly 80 state and metropolitan intelligence agencies funded largely by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Fusion centers were created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to increase collaboration and intelligence gathering among all levels of law enforcement. The agencies received at least $461 million in federal funding last year and an estimated $1.4 billion through 2012, according to federal grant data. They have been widely criticized for violating Americans’ right to privacy and drafting intelligence reports on peace activists, political groups and, in one case, a California motorcycle gang’s distribution of a leaflet urging members to have a designated driver and cooperate if stopped by police.

U.S. Senate investigators and the Government Accounting Office have both issued critical reports about fusion centers, raising questions about the scope of their activities and whether the public’s money was being well spent.

The MIAC’s activities in Maine are largely covert. The agency is overseen by Maine State Police, but its budget, the information it collects and the exact makeup of its 12-member staff are not publicly disclosed. Special Services Maj. Christopher Grotton said in an interview last week that he could not readily provide the agency’s budget, and he declined to specify which federal agencies had personnel working in the MIAC. Nonetheless, he said the agency isn’t nearly as spooky as critics may believe.

“We are required to have very strict privacy policies and guidelines,” he said. “I can tell you that we follow those. We are involved in the analysis of criminal information, period.”

DEALING WITH GROWING DRUG PROBLEM

The MIAC was thrust into the spotlight last week when Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris announced that he was creating a new division within the agency. It will gather information and use intelligence data from a vast database to help coordinate with law enforcement agencies to “work on a 24-hour-a-day basis to deal with the drug issue in the state,” Morris said.

The announcement followed a three-hour, closed-door drug summit convened by Gov. Paul LePage to address the state’s burgeoning drug epidemic. The increased use of the state’s fusion center will be bolstered by the Maine National Guard, which, Morris said, will add to its staff of analysts already working with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to disrupt heroin trafficking.

The LePage administration’s enforcement-heavy approach to the drug crisis has drawn widespread criticism, and its decision to enlist the services of the MIAC has raised concerns.

Zach Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, said his organization has unsuccessfully tried to get more information about the fusion center. He said a request for public records the ACLU submitted under the Freedom of Access Act returned little useful information.

“I don’t think we got good answers,” he said. “We really don’t know much about it.”

That’s also been the experience with fusion centers in other states. In 2010, the ACLU of Illinois petitioned the courts to compel the Illinois State Police to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for records related to that state’s fusion center – the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center.

While the Illinois agency was created to monitor and disrupt terrorist networks, the ACLU worried that the center was broadening its mission to include additional crimes, hazards and threats.

Nationally, the ACLU has advocated for changes to fusion centers. It contends they have ambiguous authority, operate in secrecy, are active in mining private citizens’ data and have put military personnel in charge of law enforcement activities – possibly violating a federal law known as the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which limits how the federal government can use military personnel to enforce domestic law.

“Any time the government is collecting massive amounts of information about citizens, that raises concerns,” Heiden said. “While that information can be used for good, it can also be used in ways that undermine people’s rights, whether it’s rights to free speech or to associate. We know that fusion centers in other states have targeted groups that are using their First Amendment rights – the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter – and that’s very troubling.”

He added, “Anytime that a government entity has an ill-defined mission – and the war on drugs is nothing if not an ill-defined mission – that creates potential problems.”

‘NATURAL FIT’ IN BID TO HUNT DEALERS

Grotton believes the MIAC is “a natural fit” in the effort to hunt down drug dealers and disrupt the trafficking network. He stressed that the agency will only provide analytical support – tracking trends in arrests or an uptick in overdoses reported by hospitals or emergency responders. He said the MIAC already offers investigative support for local law enforcement, providing trend analysis for criminal investigations, “which could be anything from a kidnapping to a homicide, to a burglary ring.”

“The intent is not to use the MIAC in some operational role in disrupting the drug trafficking network,” he said. “It’s simply communications and analysis.”

But it’s the gathering – and securing – of personal data that has civil liberties advocates concerned.

“Any time there’s a massive amount of data in the hands of the government or a private entity, it’s a question of when that data will be leaked and breached, not if it will become breached,” Heiden said.

Grotton said the MIAC tracks and stores data in accordance with federal and state laws.

“Any information we gather on a person has a relevance to criminal conduct and we’re very careful about the storage and retention of any of that data,” he said.

Grotton said he couldn’t immediately provide budget data for the MIAC, but said the agency receives state and federal funds. Five sworn law enforcement officers and one analyst are funded with state dollars, while three civilian analysts are funded with a Homeland Security Grant. Grotton said there are three other staffers and he expects that there could be two more analysts provided for the drug enforcement initiative.

According to federal grant data, Maine received $3.7 million from the State Homeland Security Program in 2014 and $514,929 from Operation Stonegarden, a grant program designed to secure the borders with Mexico and Canada.

Grotton said the MIAC received a portion of those grants, but he could not be specific about how much.

The Legislature appears to have no oversight of the MIAC. Analysts in the Legislature’s budget office and its Office of Program and Legal Analysis said they could not recall receiving a single annual report or budget presentation.

Grotton said the MIAC is no different than a special division within Maine State Police, which has one budget.

Former Gov. John Baldacci created the MIAC in 2006 through an executive order, along with a three-member oversight board charged with ensuring that the MIAC’s surveillance efforts don’t infringe on the civil liberties of Maine citizens.

Wathen, the advisory board member, said he can’t remember the last time the panel met. Neither can Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, who was also appointed to the board.

Wathen said the last meeting he can recall included recommendations from the board for overseeing the MIAC.

Maine State Police officials did not respond to the recommendations, and the oversight panel hasn’t met since.

Grotton acknowledged that the advisory board “hasn’t met in a number of years.” He said increased guidelines and auditing by the state and federal authorities have made the board less necessary.

“When (the MIAC) was originally created some of those guidelines were not in place,” he said. “I think there’s less of a concern.”

AUDITING OF FUSION CENTERS INCREASED

The Department of Homeland Security has increased auditing and guidelines for fusion centers, a response to pressure from groups like the ACLU and congressional investigators.

A 2012 investigation by the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs found that fusion centers wasted taxpayer dollars producing shoddy intelligence that illegally infringed on Americans’ private lives. The report included a number of instances in which Homeland Security failed to oversee the activities and spending of fusion centers on intelligence programs.

In one instance, a San Diego fusion center spent nearly $75,000 on 55 flat-screen televisions. When asked by investigators what the televisions were used for, fusion center officials said “open-source monitoring” – a law enforcement euphemism for watching the news.

The report was disputed by federal officials who had hailed fusion centers as vital to their counterterrorism efforts. Nonetheless, the scrutiny appears to have forced reforms at the Department of Homeland Security, as wells as efforts seemingly designed to assure a wary public that fusion centers play a vital role in law enforcement and disrupting terrorist plots. A section of the homeland security agency’s website is devoted to fusion center “Success Stories.” It includes one involving the MIAC, which received an intelligence summary about a suspect involved in the abduction and rape of a woman in Pennsylvania. The Maine State Police eventually notified the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that the man had fled the state. He was later arrested in New Brunswick.

Fusion centers remain the subject of controversy. Some intelligence reports developed through the centers have targeted supporters of former libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul and, more recently, protesters involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. A 2014 audit by the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog agency for Congress, found that the Department of Homeland Security “cannot accurately account for federal funds provided to states to support these centers.”

All of that is cause for concern, said Heiden, who worries that the MIAC will only lead to the imprisonment of drug users and those who have sold drugs while not solving the root of the drug problem.

“There’s a concern in Maine about drugs and drug addiction and the danger that poses to the health and safety of people who live here,” he said. “But it’s not a problem we’re going to arrest our way out of. This is a problem that requires a public health solution.”