The Biden administration is considering hiring outside firms to track extremist chatter by Americans on the internet, an effort that would increase the government’s ability to gather intelligence but could draw criticism for spying on US citizens.
The Department of Homeland Security is limited in its ability to monitor citizens online without justification, and it is prohibited from engaging in activities such as assuming false identities in order to gain access to private messaging apps used by extremist groups such as the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers.
Instead, federal authorities can only search for unprotected information on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as other open online platforms.
According to multiple sources, the plan being discussed within DHS would effectively allow the department to circumvent those constraints. According to a source familiar with the effort, the goal is not to decrypt data but rather to use outside entities who have legal access to these private groups to gather large amounts of information that will aid DHS in identifying key narratives as they emerge.
By collaborating with research firms with more visibility in this space, the DHS could generate information that would be beneficial to both it and the FBI, which cannot monitor US citizens in this manner without first obtaining a warrant or using the guise of an ongoing investigation. Domestic intelligence collection is also limited for the CIA and NSA.
However, it would entail empowering a DHS unit that is already under fire for its botched handling of the Portland riots last summer, an episode that included collecting intelligence reports on journalists and unmasking private citizens, according to a source familiar with a recent internal report on the matter.
That leaves the Biden administration with a critical question: how to address mistakes made during the Trump administration while also responding to what critics say were blatant failures by US intelligence agencies to act on warnings prior to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol?
“There is a tension between wanting to empower [DHS’s intelligence office] to do this kind of work around domestic terrorism on the one hand and the misuse of its capabilities during the summer of 2020, which gives a lot of people on the Hill pause when it comes to potentially giving them new authorities, capabilities, or resources,” a Senate aide told CNN.
Multiple sources told CNN that DHS officials are looking into ways to improve the department’s information gathering within the confines of its current authorities. According to sources, the department is coordinating with the National Security Council and the FBI as part of the effort.
“There was only limited awareness prior to January 6 of what violent extremists were planning through social media,” said Tom Warrick, an Atlantic Council senior fellow who served as DHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy from 2008 to 2019 and has decades of experience as a career government official at agencies including the State Department.
Warrick added that he expects DHS to “investigate whether contractors could assist them in understanding plots and trends” that emerge online.
“Whatever is approved and implemented must comply with established laws,” he said, noting that DHS can only use overt methods to gather information from social media or publicly available information.
Researchers who already monitor such activity online could serve as go-betweens to obtain the data. According to DHS officials, the materials provided would only be broad summaries or analyses of narratives emerging on these sites and would not be used to target specific individuals.
However, some of the research firms and non-profit organizations under investigation by the DHS use covert identities on a regular basis to gain access to private social media groups such as Telegram and others used by domestic extremist groups. This puts DHS in a potentially legal bind, even as it closes an intelligence gap that critics say contributed to the failure to predict the Capitol attack.