In the last months of President Obama’s ‘reign’, Reuters reports that, thanks to a presidential executive order, bypassing congressional and court review, a Department of Defense manual on procedures governing its intelligence activities permits the collection of information about Americans for counterintelligence purposes even “when no specific connection to foreign terrorist(s) has been established.”
As Reuters exclusively details, the change last year to a Department of Defense manual on procedures governing its intelligence activities was made possible by a decades-old presidential executive order, bypassing congressional and court review.
The new manual, released in August 2016, now permits the collection of information about Americans for counterintelligence purposes “when no specific connection to foreign terrorist(s) has been established,” according to training slides created last year by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI).
Executive order 12333, signed by former President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and later modified by former President George W. Bush, establishes how U.S. intelligence agencies such as the CIA are allowed to pursue foreign intelligence investigations. The order also allows surveillance of U.S. citizens in certain cases, including for activities defined as counterintelligence.
Under the previous Defense Department manual’s definition of counterintelligence activity, which was published in 1982, the U.S. government was required to demonstrate a target was working on behalf of the goals of a foreign power or terrorist group.
In August 2016, during the final months of former President Barack Obama’s administration, a Pentagon press release announced that the department had updated its intelligence collecting procedures but it made no specific reference to “homegrown violent extremists.”
The revision was signed off by the Department of Justice’s senior leadership, including the attorney general, and reviewed by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a government privacy watchdog.
The updated Defense Department manual refers to any target “reasonably believed to be acting for, or in furtherance of, the goals or objectives of an international terrorist or international terrorist organization, for purposes harmful to the national security of the United States.”
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The slides were obtained by Human Rights Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request about the use of federal surveillance laws for counter-drug or immigration purposes and shared exclusively with Reuters.
The Air Force and the Department of Defense told Reuters that the documents are authentic.
While some former U.S. national security officials, who generally support giving agents more counterterrorism tools but declined to be quoted, said the recently discovered change appeared to be a minor adjustment that was unlikely to significantly impact intelligence gathering; Reuters notes that some privacy and civil liberties advocates who have seen the training slides disagreed saying they were alarmed by the change because it could increase the number of U.S. citizens who can be monitored under an executive order that lacks sufficient oversight.
“What happens under 12333 takes place under a cloak of darkness,” said Sarah St. Vincent, a surveillance researcher with Human Rights Watch who first obtained the documents.
“We have enormous programs potentially affecting people in the United States and abroad, and we would never know about these changes” without the documents, she said.
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