The Department of Homeland Security has for years been targeting Americans with a nearly unknown domestic intelligence program while employees feared the consequences of bringing up legal concerns.
A cache of internal documents reported by Politico revealed that the program empowers officials to seek interviews with nearly anyone in the country, as well as bypass lawyers to talk with incarcerated people or those held in immigration detention centers, raising concerns for their civil liberties.
The program is called the Overt Human Intelligence Collection Program and run by DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A). Its official purpose is to collect information about transnational drug trafficking, organized crime, and other threats to the country, Politico reported.
An anonymous source familiar with the program told Politico that prior to interviewing prisoners at local jails and federal prisons, the program does not require officials to contact their lawyers first, which would otherwise be standard practice.
“I don’t know any counsel in their right mind that would sign off on that, and any member of Congress that would say, ‘That’s OK,’” said Carrie Bachner, a consultant and former DHS adviser. “If these people are out there interviewing folks that still have constitutional privileges, without their lawyer present, that’s immoral.”
I&A has been running the program since at least 2016 amid a culture of fear and uncertainty. An April 2021 survey of the office’s largest division found that half its employees had alerted managers of legal concerns about their work, “many of whom feel their concern was not appropriately addressed.”
Many employees did not want to fill out the survey over fears of retaliation, Politico reported.
One employee said during a listening session that the division was “shady” and “runs like a corrupt government.” A document said that some employees’ legal concerns were so intense that they wanted coverage for legal liability insurance, Politico reported.
In August, an I&A official ordered a pause to interviews with prisoners awaiting trial who had been read their Miranda rights. The official wrote to personnel that following an internal watchdog’s meeting with DHS’ Intelligence Law Division, he was ordering those interviews to be “temporarily halt[ed].”
In a statement that did not acknowledge the program’s existence, an I&A spokesperson said the office has taken steps to address employee concerns beginning in September 2020. The spokesperson said “additional employee feedback mechanisms” have been added, as well as new training on intelligence legal authorities.
In the statement, the office’s boss, Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis Ken Wainstein, said organizations must be able to “persevere through challenging times, openly acknowledge and learn from those challenges, and move forward in service of the American people.”
“The Office of Intelligence and Analysis has done just that over the past few years,” he said. “Together, we will ensure 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.”