For years, the Department of Homeland Security has run a virtually unknown program gathering domestic intelligence, one of many revelations in a wide-ranging tranche of internal documents reviewed by POLITICO.
Those documents also reveal that a significant number of employees in DHS’s intelligence office have raised concerns that the work they are doing could be illegal.
Under the domestic-intelligence program, officials are allowed to seek interviews with just about anyone in the United States. That includes people held in immigrant detention centers, local jails, and federal prison. DHS’s intelligence professionals have to say they’re conducting intelligence interviews, and they have to tell the people they seek to interview that their participation is voluntary. But the fact that they’re allowed to go directly to incarcerated people — circumventing their lawyers — raises important civil liberties concerns, according to legal experts.
That specific element of the program, which has been in place for years, was paused last year because of internal concerns. DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, which runs the program, uses it to gather information about threats to the U.S., including transnational drug trafficking and organized crime. But the fact that this low-profile office is collecting intelligence by questioning people in the U.S. is virtually unknown.
The inner workings of the program — called the “Overt Human Intelligence Collection Program” — are described in the large tranche of internal documents POLITICO reviewed from the Office of Intelligence and Analysis. Those documents and additional interviews revealed widespread internal concerns about legally questionable tactics and political pressure. The documents also show that people working there fear punishment if they speak out about mismanagement and abuses.
One unnamed employee — quoted in an April 2021 document — said leadership of I&A’s Office of Regional Intelligence “is ‘shady’ and ‘runs like a corrupt government.’” Another document said some employees worried so much about the legality of their activities that they wanted their employer to cover legal liability insurance.
Carrie Bachner, formerly the career senior legislative adviser to the DHS under secretary for intelligence, said the fact that the agency is directly questioning Americans as part of a domestic-intelligence program is deeply concerning, given the history of scandals related to past domestic-intelligence programs by the FBI.
Bachner, who served as a DHS liaison with Capitol Hill from 2006 to 2010, said she told members of Congress “adamantly” — over and over and over again — that I&A didn’t collect intelligence in the U.S.
“I don’t know any counsel in their right mind that would sign off on that, and any member of Congress that would say, ‘That’s OK,’” said Bachner, who currently runs a consulting firm. “If these people are out there interviewing folks that still have constitutional privileges, without their lawyer present, that’s immoral.”