DHS intelligence revamps lounge chairs: Once again – On Thursday, the embattled US Department of Homeland Security’s Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) Office announced new changes following the findings of a review internal . Kenneth L. Wainstein, who now heads I&A and was a top War on Terror official in the George W.Bush’s Justice Department, Bloomberg insisted, “It’s not just about swapping org charts to try to demonstrate progress.” But it turns out that’s exactly the nature of this new I&A reorganization.
I&A’s activities have been the subject of regular outrage seemingly every few months as the bureau finds itself in the headlines with a new scandal. More recently, Politico revealed that I&A was collecting information from incarcerated and incarcerated people without telling their attorneys and with little or no protection of their rights. When the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion, I&A was caught monitoring the social media “reactions” and “thoughts” of people who were simply talking about politics online.And during the civil rights protest after the murder of George Floyd, the I&A monitored reporters and aided a summer campaign to undermine and discredit protesters, resulting in the removal of a senior official and multiple investigations.
Last week, Wainstein described this years-long string of misdeeds as a “tough point.” My Brennan Center for Justice colleague Faiza Patel and I recently authored a report documenting these and other wrongdoings, explaining how the overly permissive I&A environment is designed to foster chronic abuse, and called for a fundamental change. It seems that I&A also tried to find a way forward. The first results of the review are available and I&A will make two changes that they believe will strengthen integrity and accountability.
The first change announced by I&A last week is to separate social media collectors from intelligence analysts to ensure collectors have the independence and oversight needed to comply with law and policy. Currently, analysts and collectors operate under I&A’s sprawling Intelligence Enterprise Operations division, but as separate entities. Under the previous administration, I&A placed social media collectors alongside other information-sharing officials. This desk will, it seems, be torn apart.
Similarly, I&A’s human collection and liaison functions had operated separately, were combined and renamed in 2015, renamed again, and then apparently renamed Field Intelligence Directorate, according to a recent DHS article.These operations — which take place in irresponsible “fusion centers” with state and local police — appear to combine “collection and analysis functions,” undermining Wainstein’s justification for isolating social media collectors.
Regardless, the transfer of social media collectors from one part of I&A to another does not address the concerns raised by their work. Indeed, social media remains ambiguous, loaded with jokes and subtext, largely anonymous, and generally difficult to analyze. Finding useful information in this environment has often proven difficult, and as the Brennan Center shows in our report, I&A is not always up to scratch in distinguishing value from waste. Wainstein touts the “constant monitoring” of social media gathering as a new perk.But the lack of oversight did not cause I&A to move past the 2020 racial justice rallies. Rather, as the DHS General Counsel made clear, the problem was that I&A and DHS leaders were able to direct social media collection and reporting to serve their political agendas. .
This reorganization does not address the overbroad mandate and weak safeguards that have allowed the unit to be used as a tool for the Trump administration’s preferred narrative about the dangers of protests for racial justice. To comply with the legal requirements codified in its guidelines, I&A agents must secure their activities beyond a listed mission. But these missions are so broad – including counterterrorism intelligence, infrastructure threats, narcotics trafficking, foreign espionage and more – that they can provide the basis for illegitimate activity, as was the case in 2020. .Even generic missions, such as providing intelligence support to DHS leaders, are open to abuse.
Constraints are rare. The guidelines give only passing treatment to the First Amendment and suggest that the I&A can monitor grassroots political speech as long as it affirms a mission-driven purpose. This flimsy norm makes it all too easy for I&A officials to find a pretext to control political speech online, as we’ve seen both with the Trump administration targeting racial justice protesters and government surveillance. Biden administration of people discussing abortion on the assumption that it posed a threat to national security.
The second change announced provides for the grouping of internal control functions into a single office.Currently, the I&A Intelligence and Privacy Oversight Directorate, which is responsible for investigating violations of I&A guidelines, sits at three levels under I&A; under the new plan, they will report to a new officer who will report directly to Wainstein. Wainstein says the move will elevate oversight to “the highest level,” but in reality, the only intelligence oversight office within DHS remains subordinate to the officer in charge of oversight. It’s a fundamentally broken arrangement that easily allows I&A management to roll back oversight again when it’s needed most.
So let’s be clear: the new I&A realignment is just “just swapping org charts”. It does not solve any of the fundamental problems of the agency.The Brennan Center offers real fixes in our recent report.
The Secretary of Homeland Security must permanently end I&A’s harmful and easily abusive practices of spreading unverified social media information about Americans and gathering intelligence from prisons. Oversight of I&A intelligence functions should be strengthened and made independent of the office it oversees, not just moved up the I&A organizational chart. Congress should codify these changes and restrict I&A’s enormous discretion.
I&A reported that more changes are in the works, noting a “reassessment of priorities.With a history of targeting rallies for racial justice and a current practice of monitoring political “narratives” online, I&A’s priorities are certainly out of whack. There are real changes to protect both the security and the rights of Americans that the Secretary and Congress can — and should — make today. Don’t be fooled when the DHS instead indulges in sleight of hand and calls it progress.