The Domestic Intelligence Imperative
Something is wrong when sharing requires breaking the law
By Michael Tanji
Driven to desperation by restrictive information sharing rules, and concerned about the terrorist threat to their homes and loved ones, at least five American intelligence officers established a domestic espionage ring. The target of their actions: the federal government. The beneficiary of their actions: Los Angeles. How has it come to this, that otherwise patriotic and loyal citizens feel compelled to work against their government in order to serve and protect their communities?
Testimony by former Gunnery Sgt. Gary Maziarz, who received a 26 month prison sentence for his cooperation with federal prosecutors, revealed that his colleagues in the reserve military intelligence community were using their occasional access to national-level intelligence on terrorism to support their day jobs: countering terrorism at the local government level. One member of the ring works in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the other in the LAPD. Maziarz, then an intelligence analyst at Camp Pendleton, was invaluable to the ring because of his ability to regularly access national intelligence databases and pass a steady stream of information to his accomplices on terrorism suspects in the LA area.
There is no shortage of press reports about the intelligence community’s efforts to improve information sharing amongst its various components as well as state and local security organizations. Improved information sharing was a goal of intelligence reform legislation and a variety of policy, procedure and technology efforts within the community are trying to make sharing more efficient and effective. It has not been reported what efforts if any the spy ring might have taken to work within the system to get terrorism intelligence held by national agencies down to the city-level. However, it is likely that seasoned intelligence professionals (at least two members of the spy ring were Colonels) at least tried to work through official channels.We are left to assume that an honest effort was made, but that the results were less than optimal.
The importance of sharing intelligence information both horizontally among peers and vertically among those working different levels of the same intelligence problem cannot be overstated. No one agency has the complete picture of what is going on in the world. Masters of the big-picture are often woefully ignorant of details on the ground; those working the nitty-gritty of problem often toil in ignorance over what role their work plays in the larger scheme of things. The members of this spy ring, and many others like them, stand astride both worlds and realize how vast these gaps are. They understand how useful national resources can be once turned on foreign infiltrators and domestic traitors, but their actions have likely set back the cause of sharing more than it might have helped it.
All of our intelligence capabilities are employed for naught if the information they produce does not get into the hands of those who can best use it. Under the compartmentalization system in the foreign intelligence environment (the practice of keeping discrete parts of a larger effort separate so that only a few people had the full picture of any given program) you could be assured that those operating at the highest levels were making the most informed decisions. Any appearance of inaction or confusion about a strategic move was merely the result of security-enforced ignorance. That this nation has never had a domestic intelligence capability means that our national security leadership is ill-equipped to operate in the domain. Consequently, we cannot assume with any confidence that the lack of sharing is the result of a conscious decision to keep certain people out of the loop. The odds are better that information is not getting to the right place because a) the person that has it does not know the entirety of those who should receive it or b) those that need it have no way of knowing what to ask for or if it even exists.
Most of these problems could be solved or at least alleviated with the establishment of a true, independent domestic intelligence agency. Such an agency could operate with new, effective and legally acceptable policies and procedures to ensure that we can monitor those we need to and avoid infringing the rights of innocents. A new agency would also establish a new culture that is more attuned to the domestic mission and not encumbered by the foreign-intelligence mindset that is used to holding everyone – even sister agencies – at arm’s length.
Having a single place to go for information about the domestic threat would greatly simplify and speed information sharing efforts. Currently a major metro police department like Los Angeles might have separate relationships with the CIA, DEA, FBI, NSA, DHS, and various Pentagon elements. Each agency has its own policy and procedure for sharing information, communications channels, delivery mechanisms and security restrictions. Data may also be delivered in formats that are incompatible with local databases or analytical software, adding an additional layer of complexity; lengthening the time analysts need to make sense of the information they are provided, and shortening the time officers can respond to threats.
A single domestic agency is also likely to mean a more open environment in which goals and strategies can be discussed and disagreement arbitrated. Having a single forum for addressing these issues can only help improve understanding between largely incompatible cultures of intelligence and law enforcement. Cops have to understand that one arrest now could mean missing out on the chance to make ten arrests later; spooks have to appreciate the tactile, personal and deadly operating environment in which cops operate.
A dedicated domestic intelligence capability is a necessity that is long overdue. If things hold true to form we are likely to suffer another attack on the homeland before the widespread realization sets in that bloated and ill-conceived measures like the Department of Homeland Security are not the answer to our domestic security woes. A domestic intelligence capability is a hard sell, but the threats are real and the risks of not having such a capability exceedingly high. That we lack the political will to attempt to solve this problem before it is too late speaks more ill of those who chose not to change the system, than of those who felt compelled to break it.