Sources, Informants, Surveillance
There seems to be a good deal of confusion in regard to all these subjects at present, especially within the White House. Having following all three areas for a considerable time, I thought I should walk through a very brief overview of not only what the intelligence community is authorized to do, but legally mandated to do in these areas – in terms of both crime and national security.
Both the FBI and CIA operate public offices in most American cities. Citizens are encouraged to contact the FBI if they suspect they may have information or leads relating to federal crimes or activities which would represent suspect activities by individuals acting for foreign powers. CIA domestic contact officers maintain voluntary contacts with American’s who do business overseas or who encounter information relating to foreigners visiting or living within the United States. If those contacts reveal activities which suggest foreign intelligence collections or attempts to establish domestic agents of influence for foreign powers, the CIA is supposed to turn that information over to the FBI.
Of course the same goes for actual security threats, including espionage, sabotage and terror activities. One of the fundamental breakdowns in regard to the attacks of 9/11 was the failure of the CIA to hand off information on suspects visiting the United States to the FBI; another was the failure of the FBI to aggressively pursue concrete leads from its field offices. As a side note, at the time the FBI had become somewhat cautious about its subversive activities role and that definitely appears to have constrained its headquarters actions – the Bureau faces a real balancing act in such matters. One contemporary concern is that with the very literal White House challenges to the activities of both Justice and FBI, the FBI may once again be moved into a state of extreme caution, blunting its effectiveness in counter intelligence and subversive investigations.
In terms of FBI interventions, the Bureau routinely accepts contacts from volunteer sources, routinely vets whether the sources actually have access to the issues they relate and if so opens source files on them. At that point they are certainly not “informants”, but simply sources of information on potential criminal or subversive matters. The FBI may also contact individuals known to be associated with individuals who are the subject of existing criminal investigations or who may have information on future subversive activities. As an example, upon his return from Russia the FBI visited Lee Oswald and requested that he contact the Bureau if he himself was approached by anyone appearing to represent a foreign power – he agreed to do so. Later, in New Orleans, after being in contact with Cuban exiles and involving himself with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, he also voluntarily reached out to a subversive desk officer within the FBI and submitted to a lengthy interview.
The next stage in either subversive or criminal matters occurs when the FBI determines that an individual actually has direct contacts and information which might be of value in an actual investigation – at that point the individual becomes a “potential criminal informant” (that’s a dated term, such designations change over the decades). As an example, the FBI designated Jack Ruby as a potential criminal informant for a period of time, however when their related investigations failed to lead to actual charges, he was dropped. Only when an investigation proceeds to the point of potential prosecution does a source actually become an “informant” and at that point care is taken to conceal information about them given that they be required to give evidence in either open or closed (classified) legal actions.
For those readers with interest in the JFK assassination, you may or may not be surprised that many of the names you are familiar with including Jack Ruby, Lee Oswald, Gerry Hemming, Frank Sturgis, Roy Hargraves, Bernardo de Torres and a good number of others appear as both FBI and CIA sources. Some like Ruby and Sturgis moved up the scale with either the FBI or the CIA, others simply kept going back to both the CIA and FBI with information – possibly to establish some sort of legitimacy and at times to dump dirt on individuals or groups they felt to be competitors. It is not uncommon to find that people who themselves walk a line in regards to criminal and subversive activities initiating contacts with either the Bureau or the Agency.
As far as the surveillance aspect of all this, that is a story in itself, but at its most basic, the NSA is mandated to perform surveillance not only on foreign entities’ military and diplomatic communications but also communications related to foreign contacts with individuals who may be providing information to or potentially acting as witting or unwitting tools of foreign powers. It receives “collections” lists of foreign individuals, government entities and commercial entities which may serve as covers for intelligence collection, espionage, criminal activities such as drug and weapons sales – and of course terrorism.
The surveillance lists can obviously be quite extensive and has grown in recent years as more and more individuals have begun doing business with Russia and China and as the terror threat expanded globally. Matters escalate if material is collected that suggests that either illegal activities (including individuals acting as agents for foreign powers who have not filed the correct legal paperwork declaring such activities) are in progress – at that point the FBI may decide to pursue the issue with independent intelligence collection and surveillance of the American citizens involved. Such action requires submission and approval by a FISA court.
Obviously this is a far more complex subject than be covered in a blog post, some aspects of it are detailed in my book Surprise Attack. Other areas are explored in considerable depth in Creating Chaos, which should be out as an eBook next month. As always, if you have questions, feel free to post here or to email me direct at email@example.com