AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The Maine House voted Monday to eliminate the state’s secretive “fusion center” created in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to ensure data is shared among law enforcement agencies.
The 88-54 vote followed a whistleblower lawsuit and legislative scrutiny of the center, which was accused of gathering and storing intelligence on gun buyers, power line protesters and employees of a camp for Israeli and Arab teens. Further votes would be necessary to close the center, which is an arm of the Maine State Police.
The proposal provoked fierce debate — and rare bipartisan support — with lawmakers invoking George Orwell's dystopian novel “1984” and even making comparisons to Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union. Another lawmaker countered by suggesting the bill was a veiled attempt to defund the police.
Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent from Friendship, said the goal of sharing information about foreign-based terrorism was admirable but said there was “mission creep” beyond the center's original purpose.
“This is something out of George Orwell. This is not the kind of society that Americans stand for,” Evangelos said.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, said that the operator of the fusion center couldn’t demonstrate that it was an effective use of taxpayer dollars or that it offered something new that other law enforcement agencies didn’t already provide.
But Rep. Matthew Harrington, who's a police officer, said the center provides basic information like photos of criminal suspects or vehicles that were used in crimes to law enforcement agencies.
“My department has used it many times to help solve cases. To compare this to George Orwell is laughable,” said Harrington, R-Sanford.
Maine Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck has insisted that the center gathers open-source information and is not an investigative agency. “We’re not spying on people,” he said previously.