Homeland Intelligence Unit Marred by Missteps Gets Overhaul (1)

  • Unit criticized for handling of Capitol attack, 2020 protests
  • Reorganization elevates oversight position, shuffles teams

(Adds Patel, Reynolds comments in last section.)

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The Department of Homeland Security is overhauling its intelligence unit and boosting oversight after a series of high-profile blunders and questions about political influence.

The Office of Intelligence and Analysis announced its reorganization Thursday, elevating internal oversight functions, creating a new division to manage information collection, and adding an executive position focused on guiding intelligence work throughout DHS.

The overhaul aims to respond to evolving threats and address mounting concerns about the intelligence office’s work in recent years, including its failure to adequately warn law enforcement about the likelihood of violence at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

While the organizational shuffle is unlikely to quell deeper misgivings some lawmakers and civil liberties proponents have about domestic intelligence-gathering, I&A leaders view it as an opportunity to bolster oversight and support the workforce.

“This isn’t just swapping out org charts to try to demonstrate progress,” Under Secretary Ken Wainstein, who has led the office since mid-2022, said in an interview at office headquarters this week.

The changes stem from a sweeping review carried out under his direction over the past year and an earlier assessment led by his predecessors. The final product relies on input from former I&A leaders, DHS officials, intelligence community professionals, academics, and the workforce, he said.

Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A demonstrator sprays a chemical irritant at law enforcement officers during the Jan. 6, 2021 invasion of the U.S. Capitol building.

With more than 1,000 employees and hundreds of contractors, I&A specializes in reviewing publicly available information to root out potential threats, and serves as an information-sharing bridge between the federal government and state and local partners.

The office has faced harsh criticism for failing to adequately warn law enforcement about Jan. 6, producing intelligence reports on US journalists covering Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Ore., in 2020, and using some intelligence-gathering tactics that critics view as abuses of power.

‘Rough Patch’

The organizational changes announced Thursday are the first phase of a broader effort — requested by Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Deputy Secretary John Tien — to revamp the troubled office. The next phase will review I&A’s priorities, how it allocates resources, and how it fits within the broader intelligence community.

“I&A was designed initially for a particular time period and a particular threat environment, and that threat environment has changed dramatically,” Wainstein said, adding that the office’s recent “rough patch” further motivated the review.

Wainstein is a former George W. Bush official who took the helm at I&A last year with plans to improve oversight, morale, and recruitment and help the office rehabilitate its bruised reputation.

‘Backwater’ Intelligence Office Faces Test Under Biden Nominee

Civil rights advocates and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been pushing for an overhaul. A recent analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University argued I&A had “veered from its counterterrorism mission into tracking social and political movements.” The American Civil Liberties Union, Demand Progress, and other groups have also complained about the scope of I&A’s work, and Center for a New American Security recommended organizational changes.

A top Senate Democrat accused I&A of “stunning incompetence” and mismanagement in relation to the Jan. 6 and Portland incidents. And Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee alleged “mission creep and overreach” in response to a recent Politico report of controversial intelligence-gathering methods, including interviewing incarcerated people without lawyers present.

Increased Oversight, Supervision

The organizational changes unveiled Thursday include the creation of a Transparency and Oversight Program Office led by longtime DHS official Andrew Fausett. The office will centralize and elevate oversight and compliance roles that are scattered around I&A. Wainstein touted the shift a significant step in ensuring DHS can root out threats to the US while respecting privacy and civil liberties.

“We need that person at the top levels making it clear to everybody externally, but most importantly, internally, that that function is on a par with the function of protecting national security,” Wainstein said.

The creation of an office focused on intelligence collection activities — a change from the current setup that places intelligence collection and analysis under the same umbrella — is also designed to improve I&A’s work and ensure safeguards.

I&A doesn’t do the type of covert intelligence-gathering other agencies are known for; it’s limited to using public information and doing overt interviews. But its focus on domestic threats means much of its work involves Americans and permanent US residents and is subject to strict ground rules. The new office will ensure close supervision and help address concerns about politicization of collection work and protection of civil liberties, Wainstein said.

It remains to be seen whether I&A’s critics view the organizational shifts as positive steps or too little, too late. Some civil liberties advocates have called for more sweeping changes, including an oversight office to review intelligence work across all of DHS and updated laws to curb I&A’s authorities.

Faiza Patel, senior director of liberty and national security for the Brennan Center, and counsel Spencer Reynolds on Thursday said their first impressions were the changes to I&A’s structure are largely superficial and shouldn’t replace a broader review of authorities and protections.

“The guardrails to make sure that they don’t actually abuse these really broad mandates are not in place,” Patel said, adding that the changes looked like “another management shuffle.”

The next phase of I&A’s review will focus on the scope of its mission and where it’s adding the most value within the intelligence community.

“The mission needs shift day by day, so this priorities reassessment should be an organic, continuing process — an ongoing process,” Wainstein said. “But it’s important for us to step back and do it in a more comprehensive manner at this point in time.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John P. Martin at jmartin@bloombergindustry.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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