The Department of Homeland Security has for years run an almost unknown program gathering domestic intelligence that a significant number of employees are concerned could be illegal, Politico reported Monday after reviewing a wide-ranging tranche of internal documents.
Under the domestic-intelligence program, run by the DHS's Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A), officials are permitted to pursue interviews with almost anyone in the United States, including those held in immigrant detention centers, local jails, and federal prison.
The purpose of the program is to collect information about threats to the U.S., including transnational drug trafficking and organized crime.
Although DHS has to tell those it wants to interview that participation is voluntary and that it is carrying out intelligence interviews, the fact it's permitted to go directly to incarcerated people, without doing it through lawyers, raises civil liberties concerns, legal experts told Politico.
The inner workings of the program, which have been in place for years but were paused last year due to internal concerns, are detailed in the internal documents Politico reviewed, which also revealed widespread internal concerns about legally questionable tactics and political pressure and that people working there fear punishment if they speak out about mismanagement and abuses.
The documents detailed that many employees did not want to fill out a survey on working conditions, because they feared being punished for sharing negative views.
Spencer Reynolds, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and a former DHS intelligence and counterterrorism attorney, told Politico that I&A's mission makes it uniquely susceptible to political pressure.
"In recent years, the office's political leadership — Democrat and Republican — has pushed I&A to take a more and more expansive view of its mandate, putting officers in the position of surveilling Americans' views and associations protected by the U.S. Constitution," he said.
"There's a tendency to use the office's power to paint political opponents — be they left-wing demonstrators or QAnon truthers — as extremists and dangerous. This has had a disastrous impact on morale — most people don't join the Intelligence Community to monitor their fellow Americans' political, religious, and social beliefs. At the same time, leadership has sidelined I&A's oversight offices, leaving employees with little recourse."
Former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, DHS under secretary for intelligence and analysis, who took the helm of I&A in June, said in a statement that his office is addressing employee concerns and that "the true measure of a government organization is its ability to persevere through challenging times, openly acknowledge and learn from those challenges, and move forward in service of the American people."
Wainstein added in his statement that I&A "has done just that over the past few years. ... Together, we will ensure that our work is completely free from politicization, that our workforce feels free to raise all views and concerns, and that we continue to deliver the quality, objective intelligence that is so vital to our homeland security partners."
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