However, Biden’s approach does not go far enough. He is asking a multitude of federal agencies to assess the threat, a worthwhile first step, but one that is only a half-measure. The lead agencies with respect to this project—the FBI, Homeland Security and the National Security Council—are ill-equipped to carry out this new responsibility. They do not have the resources required to give it the attention it deserves. They are not intelligence collection agencies in the same sophisticated sense as the CIA. Moreover, they have spent the last two decades focusing on external threats. To a great extent, their orientation has been framed and delimited by 9/11, improving intelligence coordination and warnings to prevent another mass terrorist attack by foreign non-state actors. Along the way, they have largely been blind to planning by domestic terrorists, as the events of January 6 demonstrated. The attack on the Capitol was a glaring manifestation of an intelligence failure.
David Manuel, who spent 15 years in CIA counterintelligence analysis studying other countries’ domestic intelligence agencies, proposes a solution to this intelligence gap that merits serious consideration: a U.S. domestic intelligence agency that can alert both policymakers and law enforcement to impending threats in the hope of averting catastrophic attacks.
Manuel says: “We cannot expect law enforcement agencies to be effective at intelligence gathering. Critics of previous efforts to establish a domestic intelligence agency correctly expressed concern that a law enforcement agency empowered to monitor communications of domestic groups would approach creating a ‘secret police,’ something antithetical to our values. A domestic intelligence agency charged simply with collecting information and providing warning to policy-makers and law enforcement for planning purposes, would allow enhanced capabilities to protect our form of government while still respecting the rights of American citizens.”
Manuel argues that “collecting this type of intelligence need not be controversial. A great deal of it is posted by actors of concern on social media. Monitoring chat groups, social media platforms, and message forums like Reddit can provide a wealth of intelligence. Organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and Vice News already do this. But these outside groups are not created to provide warnings within the U.S. government. A domestic intelligence agency could actually draw on and enhance work done by these private, non-governmental organizations. But they do not obviate the need for an organized intelligence agency with a cadre of analysts collating and assessing such information.”
A domestic intelligence agency would require significant professional independence coupled with strong legislative oversight. Independence is necessary to prevent corruption of intelligence analysis that some members of government may find objectionable: sadly, we have learned that government officials may occasionally see seditionist groups as their “constituents.” A domestic intelligence agency must be able to “speak truth to power.” Simultaneously, such an agency, which will almost certainly be housed in the executive branch, must be strictly answerable to Congress to avoid any appearance of being an authoritarian enforcement agency. Care establishing such an agency can prevent problems encountered in the creation of many of our intelligence agencies in the past.
Setting up a domestic intelligence capability will be neither easy nor quick. This is all the more reason our country needs to get started on this endeavor immediately. Fortunately, there are a large number of dedicated Americans with the expertise to guide such an endeavor, including former intelligence officers like Manuel, currently serving intelligence and law enforcement officers, and members of the academic community and private sector who have been studying domestic terrorism for decades.
Collection of this kind of intelligence is critical in an environment where the FBI has warned for years that right-wing groups have leap-frogged Islamic terrorism as our gravest threat.
January 29, 2021