The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s troubled Office of Intelligence & Analysis (I&A) last Thursday announced new changes following the results of an internal review. Kenneth L. Wainstein, who now runs I&A and was a senior war on terror official in George W. Bush’s Department of Justice, insisted in Bloomberg, “This isn’t just swapping out org charts to try to demonstrate progress.” But by all appearances, that is 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 office finds itself in the headlines with a new scandal. Most recently, Politico revealed that I&A was collecting intelligence from people in jails and prisons without notifying their lawyers and with few if any protections of their rights. When the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, I&A was caught monitoring the social media “reactions” and “reflections” of people simply talking politics online. And during the civil rights outcry following George Floyd’s murder, I&A surveilled journalists and aided a summer-long campaign to undermine and discredit demonstrators, resulting in the removal of a senior official and multiple investigations.
Last week, Wainstein described this years-long series of misdeeds as a “rough patch.” My Brennan Center for Justice colleague Faiza Patel and I recently authored a report that cataloged these and other wrongdoings, explained how I&A’s overly permissive environment is designed to foster chronic abuse, and called for fundamental change. It appears that I&A too has been trying to find a path forward. The initial results of the review are in and I&A will make two changes it claims will strengthen integrity and accountability.
The first change I&A announced last week is to separate social media collectors from intelligence analysts to ensure the collectors have the independence and supervision needed to comply with law and policy. Presently, both analysts and collectors operate under I&A’s broad Intelligence Enterprise Operations division, but as separate entities. Under the previous administration, I&A placed social media collectors with some other information sharing functionaries. That office will be, apparently, broken back apart.
Similarly I&A’s human collection and liaison functions had operated separately, were combined and renamed in 2015, renamed again, and then apparently again renamed the Field Intelligence Directorate, according to a recent DHS post. Those operations—which take place in unaccountable “fusion centers” with state and local police—appear to combine “collection and analytic functions,” undermining Wainstein’s justification for isolating social media collectors.
Regardless, relocating social media collectors from one part of I&A to another does not address the concerns raised by their work. That is because social media remains ambiguous, laden with in-jokes and subtext, largely anonymous, and generally difficult to parse. Finding useful intelligence in that environment has often proved difficult and, as the Brennan Center shows in our report, I&A is not always up to the task to discern value from garbage. Wainstein touts “constant supervision” of social media collection as a new benefit. But lack of supervision didn’t cause I&A’s overreach during the 2020 racial justice demonstrations. Rather, as DHS’s general counsel made clear, the problem was that I&A and DHS leadership were able to direct social media collection and reporting to serve their political agendas.
This reorganization does not remedy the overbroad mandate and weak safeguards that allowed the unit to be used as a tool for the Trump administration’s preferred narrative about the dangerousness of racial justice protests. To comply with the legal requirements codified in its guidelines, I&A’s officers must ensure their activities further an enumerated mission. But these missions are so expansive—including intelligence to counter terrorism, threats to infrastructure, narcotics trafficking, foreign spying, and more—that they can provide the basis for illegitimate activities, as occurred during 2020. Catch-all missions, such as providing intelligence support to DHS leadership, are also susceptible to abuse.
Constraints are few and far between. The guidelines give only a passing treatment to the First Amendment and suggest I&A can monitor core political speech so long as it asserts a mission-driven purpose. This flimsy standard makes it all too easy for I&A officers to concoct a pretext to surveil online political speech, as we saw both with the Trump administration’s targeting of racial justice protestors and the Biden administration’s monitoring of people discussing abortion on the presumption they posed a threat to national security.
The second announced change involves consolidating internal oversight functions into one office. Currently I&A’s Privacy and Intelligence Oversight Branch, which is responsible for investigating violations of I&A’s guidelines, sits three layers below I&A’s lead; under the new plan, they will report to a new officer who reports directly to Wainstein. Wainstein claims this move will elevate oversight to the “top levels,” but in reality the only intelligence oversight office in DHS remains subordinate to the officer it is tasked to oversee. That’s a fundamentally broken arrangement that easily enables I&A leadership to again disregard oversight when it is most needed.
So let’s be clear: I&A’s new realignment simply is “just swapping out org charts.” It fails to address any of the agency’s fundamental problems. The Brennan Center proposes real fixes in our recent report.
The Secretary of Homeland Security needs to permanently end I&A’s harmful, easily abused practices of disseminating unverified social media information about Americans and collecting intelligence in jails. Oversight of I&A’s intelligence functions should be strengthened and made independent of the office it oversees, not simply moved up on I&A’s organizational chart. Congress should codify these changes and narrow I&A’s enormous discretion.
I&A has signaled additional tweaks are coming, noting a “priorities reassessment.” With a history of targeting racial justice demonstrations and a present practice of monitoring political “narratives” online, I&A’s priorities are certainly out of whack. There are real changes to protect both the safety and rights of Americans that the Secretary and Congress can—and should—make today. Don’t be fooled when DHS instead engages in sleight of hand and calls it progress.