This summer, the Washington Post ran a remarkable story reporting that the director of national intelligence had given the FBI the lead in "coordinating domestic intelligence gathering activities." The article warned of a tidal change in the intelligence landscape -- and yet it disappeared almost immediately from the news cycle. This lack of attention hints that the significance of the change, seemingly minor on paper, but actually having profound national security ramifications in the long term, has eluded U.S. policy-makers.
Although the law prohibits the CIA from conducting surveillance on U.S. citizens, the agency is allowed to operate domestically -- chiefly to gather information from Americans who have traveled abroad, and to recruit foreigners who are in the United States. Our home soil is thus a remarkably fertile -- and readily available -- source of intelligence on what is happening abroad.
One could argue, as apparently the FBI did, that domestic intelligence-gathering should fall under the purview of an agency whose chief focus is domestic. But rather than handling the new authority in the spirit of mutual cooperation, a major FBI field office immediately held a meeting with corporate executives on the west coast and told those execs the FBI was now in charge of corporate contacts and that the execs should cut all contacts with the Central Intelligence Agency. News of the FBI's power play only surfaced because, unbeknownst to the FBI, one of the corporate execs was ex-CIA.
Such heavy-handed tactics demonstrate that at least some FBI staffers think spiking the wheels of the CIA's domestic activities is a fine idea, which casts grave doubt on the willingness and ability of the FBI to be an impartial coordinator. It was not, however, the only major red flag attached to the rule change. Assigning the FBI as "coordinator for domestic intelligence" and ceding the FBI the prime role is a change that ignores one crucial, immutable reality: The FBI cannot do what the CIA does. This is not an issue of the education, skills or ability of FBI agents. It is based on a fact that almost everybody knows, and people who work in law enforcement know better than anybody: FBI special agents are cops, and many people, not to put too fine a point on it, don't like talking to cops. And so they lie to them...a lot.
When I was in the CIA and serving as a liaison to a national lab, the scientists there had a curious story to tell me. That national lab conducted tests on heavy equipment. The lab staffers joked that when they went to trade shows and conferences, the heavy-industry folk in attendance frequently gossiped about safety issues with their equipment, including problems arising from cyber-attacks, but that whenever the FBI representative to the meetings showed up, everybody clammed up about the attacks.
While the FBI agents who attended those conferences may have been there in an "intelligence collection" role, nobody forgot that, first and foremost, FBI agents are law enforcement. The people running those industrial facilities simply weren't going to share information about cyber-attacks on their systems if sharing such information exposed them to fines or prosecution for negligence. As a consequence of that reticence, nobody in the federal government was being notified of the attacks (a situation fortunately since rectified).
I still shudder to remember one successful cyber-attack that went unreported to the FBI: A hacker took control of the systems running an industrial plant located in the eastern United States. The plant dealt with hazardous materials and the hacker maintained control for a full half-hour. Thankfully, that particular hacker took no malicious action. Still, if the chemical leak from the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, whose final toll was estimated to be near 18,000 deaths, taught any lessons, one was surely that running a chemical plant is tricky enough without your control systems being usurped by hackers. Despite the potential danger, the industry attendees at the conference where that tidbit surfaced might all have been Sergeant Schultz ("I see nothing, absolutely nothing") as far as the FBI agents in attendance were concerned.