ThreatsWatch.Org: Commentary

The Domestic Intelligence Imperative

How do we deal with the enemies among us?

By Michael Tanji

This is a banner week for intelligence-related stories, and the biggest story so far is summarized in this post at Secrecy News about the expanded use of intelligence resources in and on the US.

Issues surrounding domestic intelligence are going to come to a head a lot sooner than most people think. The pending satellite reconnaissance flail is probably going to be the tipping point. It is going to be painful to watch various department heads testify to the fact that we don’t have a good handle on how to execute this mission much less who is best suited to do so. There are plenty of pretenders to the throne, just not a good way to assess legitimacy.

Of course there is no shortage of people who claim to fear the police state we are supposedly creeping towards. Never mind the list of intelligence failures, management screw-ups, and administrative mayhem is dramatically longer than examples of intelligence community competence (or actual community-like behavior). We are to assume that suddenly competence and cooperation will spring forth once intelligence officers realize they can read their neighbor’s mail and spy on them via their web cams. Such wishful and fuzzy thinking flies in the face of both history and reality.

The fact of the matter is that the intelligence community is already drowning in a sea of perfectly legitimate and potentially dangerous material associated with foreigners. America’s spies are really not interested in data that is of no use, and that is what the vast majority of personal communications in this country is: useless. Ever listened in (inadvertently of course) to the average conversation of the average 20-something strolling through the mall or airport, on a commuter train or in a coffee shop?

It will of course be argued that no self-respecting Big Brother is going to use his power for that sort of work; it’s the dissidents and opposition that will be targeted. COINTELPRO and CHAOS are offered up as proof as to how far an administration will go to advance its agenda, but for every MLK Jr. that was snooped on, there were dozens or more that belonged to groups like the Weathermen, the Klan, and many other groups hell bent on damaging if not destroying the country. Abuse on a personal level is the exception, not the rule.

The problem we face today with regards to domestic intelligence is in many ways the same problem we have always faced: how do we deal with the enemies that are among us? The solutions to date have proven to be both unimaginative and uninspiring.

Turning our national intelligence apparatus on domestic targets is not difficult from a practical perspective, but the addition of a domestic mission would merely degrade our ability to deal with the foreign missions we already have. Absent legislation that would greatly expand the size of the IC, the community is faced with hiring more contractors and exposing itself to more of the problems that such a strategy brings.

Since a sea-change is not likely any time soon, that leaves us to nibble around the edges of current intelligence-related law. The new FISA legislation is a step in the right direction, as is the six-month sunset clause. Our intelligence system ought to be able to demonstrate to its overseers that the program is functioning as advertised AND producing meaningful results. It may be that things don’t work out as planned, in which case closing such a program down is both good policy and good economics. However, if such a program is indeed working and working well, it should stand as an example that prudent use of available resources, combined with effective oversight, significantly reduces opportunities for abuse and does not in fact lead to the downfall of the Republic. In that case, we should be looking at re-tooling all of the pertinent intelligence legislation and policy that is currently hampering our domestic intelligence capabilities.

Of course the weak point in this course of action is oversight. I’ve sat on a dais with Congressman Hoekstra, the former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He’s a great guy who really knows his stuff, but he’s working with people who frankly are not up to the task. Not to mention that he’s got to get re-elected every two years, and the hundred other plates he’s got spinning at any given time. I’m a big fan of oversight, but our representatives could benefit by the use of full-time professionals, something the community has successfully fought to date.

The government’s primary job is keeping us safe. A nation that lets its enemies operate unchecked - regardless of where they operate - is one that is in danger of extinction. All of the rights afforded us via the founders are inapplicable once our own regime is changed. A well-designed, robust, and effectively managed domestic intelligence capability can help prevent such a thing from happening and do so without violating the rights of the innocent. Wherever you fall out on this issue the answer is not hyperbole but vigilance; by your representatives and yourselves. If you truly believe we are being led down a primrose path, then it is your responsibility to put people in office that will operate per your consent, not lambaste the professionals who place their own lives on the line so you don’t have to.