Can U.S. Spy Agencies Stop White Power Violence?

The threat of widespread pro-Trump violence is raising questions of whether the U.S. needs an American-style MI5. But creating a domestic counter-terror agency comes with great risks.

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January 6: What we had here was a failure to communicate—again, years after numerous investigations and study commissions picked apart the intelligence failures leading up to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Last week America’s security agencies were again caught flat footed when another kind of militant wave, this time pro-Trump fanatics, stormed and trashed the citadel of American democracy, nearly executing what Al Qaeda had failed to do, destroy the U.S. Capitol.

Democrats in Congress are teeing up another round of investigations and commissions to get to the bottom of the insurrection, which will almost certainly revisit the thorny question of whether the U.S. needs an independent counter-subversion agency to infiltrate and neutralize armed domestic extremists, who are now threatening more attacks on or around the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Already, a bill has introduced to empower federal law enforcement to better monitor and stop domestic extremist violence.

“It is not enough to just condemn hate, we need to equip law enforcement with the tools needed to identify threats and prevent violent acts of domestic terrorism,” said its sponsor, Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill. “The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act improves coordination between our federal agencies and makes sure they are focused on the most serious domestic threats,” he said.

Meanwhile, the internal attack dogs of the departments of Justice, Defense, the Interior and Homeland Security are gearing up probes of what security officials knew and when about threats before January 6, according to The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett and Missy Ryan. One fact seems irrefutable: advance warning of the attack was fumbled, not taken seriously or ignored altogether, just like the stark alarm the CIA gave the George W. Bush White House in August 2001: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.” 

It’s deja vu all over again. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, blue ribbon commissions stumbled all over each other to find out what went wrong, with all of them coming to more or less the same conclusions: U.S. intelligence was awash in reports on Al Qaeda, but “too often failed...to appreciate its collective significance in terms of a probable terrorist attack,” as the joint report of the House and Senate intelligence committees put it.

Then there was the 9/11 Commission, which discovered that, among many intelligence lapses, the CIA had actually withheld crucial information from the FBI about the presence of Al Qaeda operatives in the U.S. In 2015 came the report of the 9/11 Review Commission, whose “overarching recommendation” was that “a specialized and integrated national security workforce of agents, analysts, linguists and surveillance specialists be recruited, trained, rewarded and retained” at the FBI.

All find echoes in the events surrounding January 6. None dare say “wake-up call” or “lessons learned”—there’s been far too many of them over the decades. But one response to the 9/11 tragedy may well get renewed attention after the Capitol assault—especially if armed white nationalists are successful in carrying out more attacks in the coming days and weeks: The call for an American-style secret police: domestic counter-terror sleuths (presumably sans jack boots, black leather jackets and death camps).

“In 2002-2004 we missed our best opportunity to really look hard at the system and consider a domestic intelligence service,” says John Sipher, a former senior CIA officer. “All of our allies do it differently. The FBI is burdened with too many responsibilities that require wholly different training, skills and systems,” he told SpyTalk. “You can’t hire a person who can easily move back and forth from law enforcement to intelligence.”

In 2003, the bipartisan Gilmore Commission, led by a former Virginia Republican governor, concluded that the U.S. needed a new domestic intelligence agency along the lines of Britain's secretive MI5, “to collect, assess and disseminate domestic intelligence.” It didn’t get too far, but the idea has never entirely lost it appeal, either.

In 2008, a study by the RAND Corp. think tank said the best of a number of alternatives was to set up “an autonomous service within an existing agency,” probably the FBI.

The FBI, under Director Robert S. Mueller III, beat back challenges to the bureau’s authority and promised to do more and better. And it did. But years later, with revelations that the FBI and Capitol Police overlooked widespread extremist social media traffic and fumbled intelligence reports on plans by pro-Trump forces to invade the Capitol, the verdict is still out on whether the bureau is fully up to the task.

“They resisted it,” John Parachini, director of  RAND’s Intelligence Policy Center, recalled of reform efforts after 9/11. “When we did our study back 10 years or so ago, they were very nervous about what we were going to say,” he told SpyTalk. “And they followed up with everybody we were interviewing.” The bureau will “very aggressively” resist any new attempts to dilute its authority, he predicted. 

And it should, says James Clapper, who was director of national intelligence during the Barack Obama administration.

“Whenever something goes wrong, the knee-jerk Beltway reaction is, ‘Let’s reorganize,’” Clapper told SpyTalk, “when more often than not, that’s not the problem.”

Bricks and Moaning

“The U.S. government doesn't have a real good track record of standing up a department without instantaneously creating a bureaucracy,” former senior Secret Service agent Jonathan Wackrow, now a CNN law enforcement analyst, tells SpyTalk. “And I point to the Department of Homeland Security…” One potential downside of an American MI5, he says, is, “you're going to codify all of the [domestic] intelligence into one central repository under one stewardship. And if you are a stakeholder that needs that information and for some reason you're not privy to it, it's going to cause more harm than good.”

Bruce Hoffman, the highly regarded Georgetown University terrorism expert, and one of the three 9/11 Review commissioners, eventually came around to the same conclusion. “I once saw the need for a U.S. version of MI5,” he told SpyTalk, “but I'm against it now.” 

Clapper thinks it’s a bad idea, too, but says “such a change should only be considered after some careful deliberation via a 9/11-type, blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission, and not rush to judgment in the heat of the current charged moment.” In the meantime, the FBI should not be knocked off its job: “The FBI represents a unique bridge between intelligence and law enforcement,” he said, “and in any event, that linkage should not be disrupted.”

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As with 9/11, the failure to prevent the January 6 rampage lay in intelligence-agency “stove-piping,” critics say—or just incompetence. A vivid and detailed January 5 warning from the FBI’s Norfolk office about extremist “war” plans for the Capitol, for example, just went missing in the bureau’s Washington Field Office. Its head says he never saw it.

“They never listen to the field,” scoffs a former senior FBI counterterrorism agent, who asked not to be identified because he still advises U.S. national security bodies.

“The Washington Field office is all but useless,” he said. “WFO should have been on top of this for months.” 

FBI inspectors gave the WFO a “failing grade” on its domestic terrorism efforts in 2017-2018, NBC News reported last week. It’s likely several others would fail that exam, suggests former FBI agent Harry Gossett: Investigative resources are “doled out based on statistical accomplishments,” such as the number of “subjects identified, indictments, arrests, convictions, fines, savings, recoveries, etc. If the bank embezzlement squad is getting more bang for the buck, they would get more bucks.” In contrast, “counterintelligence squads were measured by defections, recruitments, and intelligence take. Their cases rarely went to court.”

Tom O’Connor, who worked domestic terrorism for most of his 23-year FBI career, said, “it was clearly held as a second tier priority. The evaluation of DT squads was never fair, as the metrics are not designed to evaluate a squad working” on such a hard to pin down crime.

Handcuffing “the lone offender who is not involved in social media or personal contact with others in the movement is also near impossible.” When an attack takes place, he tells SpyTalk, “people demand to know why the FBI did not do something. The answer is, in many cases, there was no there, there. Membership in First Amendment-protected activities are not allowed to be investigated.”  

There’s plenty of blame to go around, says Ali Soufan, the former top FBI expert on Islamic radicalization and terrorism, “Unfortunately, many dropped the ball on the threat”—including the FBI, DHS, Capitol Police and D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, he said. January 6 wasn’t an “intelligence failure,” he says, but a failure to communicate, and act.

Seen and Unseen

“To call it an intelligence failure isn't an adequate representation, because the intelligence was there,” agrees Jonathan Wackrow, a former senior Secret Service agent and now global head of security for Teneo, the risk-management company. “It's a failure to operationalize the warnings that intelligence was presenting. And that's really the issue that I see—the siloed nature of intelligence fails to allow for critical information to flow to the people that need it the most.”

Timothy Gill, a highly decorated FBI senior liaison officer to the CIA from 2003 to 2013, says the creation of an American version of Britain’s MI5 is “long past due,” whether inside or independent of the FBI, because [the bureau “needs to become more of a domestic intelligence agency and not a federal law enforcement entity.” The FBI has a culture problem that prevents it from fully embracing the nitty-gritty work of intelligence gathering, analysis and sharing, at least when it comes to domestic terrorism, which the FBI (along with DHS) has labelled the greatest threat to national security, he says. 

“Although it took significant steps in improving intelligence gathering and analysis on all international and domestic terrorism issues following 9/11, it still needs to transform its culture of a being a primary law enforcement entity into becoming a domestic intelligence agency,“ he argues. For starters, he tells SpyTalk, it should get its senior intelligence analysts out of headquarters and into the field, participating in “surveillance, debriefings and operational reporting.” It also needs to fix its classified information management systems.

Net Zero

Field offices rely on the FBINET classified information system, while FBI headquarters uses a separate super-secret system called SCION to communicate with 16 other intelligence agencies. The bifurcation “prevents a cross referencing and cross pollination of critical intelligence data,” he maontains. “Much of the U.S. intelligence reporting coming in from CIA has to be watered down to Secret for upload into FBINET, where field agents typically exchange information and reports.” Yet most agents either don’t have ready access to SCION or aren’t regularly tapping into it. 

Gill, who also did a stint as a CIA deputy branch chief for counterterrorism ops against Iran-backed Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists, said “we were faced with this issue repeatedly” at the spy agency, when foreign targets were both active in the U.S. or moving between transnational terrorist and criminal organizations. He says he “frequently warned FBI management about this problem but it fell on deaf ears.“ 

Not surprisingly, Frank Figliuzzi, who headed major FBI domestic offices during his 25-year career before retiring in 2012 after 18 months as assistant director for counterintelligence, disagrees sharply with Gill. “You don’t need to see raw informant reporting to understand or access intel reports and threat analysis,” he says.

All that’s deep in the weeds, beyond the ken or interest of ordinary citizens. But it’s one of the trenches where post-January battles over the future of domestic intelligence will be fought.

The invention of an American MI5, Figliuzzi says, “would be much worse” than the present system. 

“Just ask MI5,” he says, pointing to shortcomings and overreach that he described in his new book, The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau’s Code of Excellence. He also cites a case a decade ago in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the CanadianCanadian Security Intelligence Service watched a Russian mole in the navy pass top-secret information to Kremlin agents  for months without briefing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, “for fear of  exposing sources and methods of the intelligence trade in open court proceedings,” according to the Canadian Press news service. It fell to Figliuzzi to alert the RCMP, he recounts in his book.

“The hybrid law enforcement and intelligence authorities of the FBI increase, not decrease, the likelihood of effectively countering the domestic terror threat,” he mainatins.

In any event, says Ali Soufan, who pursued Al Qaeda operatives for years before 9/11, the real challenge is not bureaucratic, it’s “the lack of real political will to acknowledge the threat.” It’s a failure writ large by the refusal of several Republican Party leaders to denounce baseless conspiracy theories that the 2020 presidential election was stolen—even after the Capitol was sacked.

Last week he urged outgoing Vice President Pence to speak out, even at this late date.

Pence “needs to build a wall between himself and all these white supremacists,” Soufan said during an online discussion co-hosted by his New York-based global security firm and the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. “He had a chance to say no” to them but has failed to do so, along with scores of other Republicans, Soufan said.

Bubba Boys

For years, local police and the FBI just couldn’t recognize crazy-talking, highly armed white men as a systematic, potential terrorism threat. Some were in their own ranks. A 2006 FBI study found considerable sympathy for white supremacists in local and state police, but ignored it. “Law enforcement’s inability to reckon with the far right is a problem that goes back generations in this country,” veteran investigative reporter Janet Reitman wrote two years ago in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. U.S. law enforcement failed to see the threat of white nationalism, and now they don't know how to stop it. Several former and present law enforcement and military personnel  joined the march on the Capitol, at President Trump’s instigation. He was impeached for that on January 13.

Undergirding resistance to any new authority to combat white nationalist terrorist threats, of course, are widespread fears that Washington could end up creating an American Gestapo, a secret police at the beck and call of a future president.

“I think there's a real danger in creating an intelligence agency that has a kind of roving warrant to conduct surveillance over individuals without a focus on criminal activity,” Georgetown Law Professor David Cole, a civil liberties specialist, told the PBS Frontline show in 2015, when the debate over creating an American MI5 was cresting. 

“If what we're concerned about is terrorism, it's a crime,” Cole added. “It seems to me that if the FBI is charged with investigating crime and the FBI focuses on people who may be engaged in crime, may be conspiring to engage in crime, might have evidence of criminal activity—all of which terrorism fits into -- that they ought to be able to do that job.”

Hoover’s Ghost

Parachini, now RAND’s senior international and defense researcher, says the resistance is partly a hangover from the half-century long tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, when FBI counterintelligence agents regularly broke the law in pursuit of real and imagined anarchists, communists and antiwar activists and the director himself tried to blackmail civil rights icon  Martin Luther King, Jr. into committing suicide

But he adds, “it's just the nature of who we are as a country. There's that natural disinclination in the American psyche to have a ministry of intelligence or a department of intelligence—and there’s some value to that allergy.”

The FBI, he says, was “very badly damaged under this [outgoing] administration, not just by Trump’s misplaced priorities and constant attacks on it for investigating him, but its own self-inflicted wounds. 

 “I think for the new administration, a real challenge is how do you turn that organization around?” he says. 

The answer may be elusive right now—especially under a cloud of more and widespread white nationalist attacks. But when the blood and dust clear, there will be no shortage of experts, officials and commissions to offer their opinions on how best to prevent yet another calamity, yet another “intelligence failure,” yet another failure to communicate.

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