Philip McTigue: U.S. Intelligence Practices, Foreign and Domestic Interagency Sharing

The U.S. has a rich history in team sports ranging from the unthinkable like the 1972 Miami Dolphins perfect season to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and their improbable win against the Soviet Union in Lake Placid. These teams were solidified units that repeatedly practiced together thus creating a cohesive group. Nobody would have ever considered fielding different teams for home games and away games. That is not how the game is played, and it is no way to build a cohesive and successful team.

Likewise, the U.S. needs to examine how the current practice is working in the intelligence community (IC) for having a split between domestic and foreign intelligence activities. The issue here is not that there is no structure, even in sports there are offensive and defensive players which creates structure to a team. Instead the problem with the current practice is the difficulty with sharing information from agency to agency and how the system is built to create a wall between domestic and foreign intelligence agencies.

There was a time when the current practice may have been appropriate for the intelligence community. However, the world has changed and the increasing technology and shocking speed at which information can travel from Philip McTigue in one agency to someone else in another via the internet or social media has created a need for a reformed practice for the United States intelligence community. This is a key step in protecting the homeland from improved and increasing threats from sophisticated enemies and terrorist groups to include the inspired lone wolf attacks being conducted globally.

Improvements in the practices of the intelligence community will also assist with national defense as well as homeland security. U.S. intelligence practices can improve performance by abolishing the separation between foreign and domestic activities, allowing for quicker and uninterrupted intelligence sharing in response to the threats faced by hostile factions.

Collecting intelligence is always a challenge when considering the civil liberties of the citizens of a nation. This becomes even more difficult in a democracy like the United States. First, a democratic society typically has expectations of openness and accountability from their elected government officials; this is in strict contradiction to the very secretive notion of intelligence which requires secrecy in order to be effective.

By using a system of checks and balances as well as rules and laws limiting the functions of the intelligence agencies within the borders of the U.S., there can be homeland security and national defense as well as effective intelligence activities while balancing individual civil rights. One of the largest barriers to these oversights is the idea that the intelligence community is working on national security, and national security outweighs other interests, including those of the civil liberties of Philip McTigue and every other citizen of the United States. Although at a superficial level this may seem appropriate, the intelligence community must still adhere to domestic rules with proper oversight to ensure liberties of U.S. citizens.

In order to prevent an over reaching domestic intelligence capability, the 1947 National Security Act prevented the CIA from conducting any “police, subpoena, law-enforcement powers, or internal security functions” within the U.S. Instead, the FBI has law enforcement and intelligence activities and responsibilities within the borders of the U.S. There is a large difference in these functions as the CIA conducts foreign intelligence activities, which at times may violate the rules of a country they are operating in while the FBI does not have these same luxuries. The U.S. foreign intelligence activities have no regard or requirement to adhere to individual rights or the need to have admissibility of evidence in a court of law or provide their informants information. This is significantly different than how the FBI operates intelligence activities within the border of the U.S.  The FBI must adhere to all of the laws within the U.S., provide admissible testimony and evidence in their court cases and often their sources are made publicly known. The FBI is a law enforcement agency within the U.S. Department of Justice and has to follow domestic laws. The CIA has a different mandate than law enforcement and was given four main functions by the 1947 National Security Act which were to:

  • Collect intelligence through human sources and by other appropriate means.
  • Correlate, evaluate, and disseminate intelligence related to national security and provide appropriate dissemination of such intelligence.
  • Provide overall direction for and coordination of the collection of intelligence outside the U.S. by human sources.
  • Perform other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the President or the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) may direct.

These functions give great flexibility to the CIA in foreign intelligence activities that the FBI does not have within the borders of the U.S.

After the attacks on September 11th, 2001, the 9/11 Commission Report found that the most important failure by the U.S. was not having an imagination. In addition to these failures of imagination the U.S. did not “find a way of pooling intelligence and using it to guide the planning and assignment of responsibilities” between the CIA, FBI, State Department and the military. These breakdowns led to many revisions to how the IC and domestic law enforcement were structured and operated after 9/11.

One of these significant changes was the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004, which led to the creation of both the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). This was renamed from the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and moved under the DNI. Prior to IRTPA in 2004, the government enacted the Department of Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the entire framework for the Department of Homeland Security. The Department of Homeland Security instantly became the third largest federal agency in existence.

In addition to those two changes, one other significant change occurred in October of 2001. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act) was passed by Congress. This legislation allowed for comprehensive changes to include allowing information obtained by intelligence officials pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to be shared with law enforcement in an effort to improve the sharing of information between the foreign intelligence community and domestic intelligence agencies and law enforcement. Prior to the PATRIOT Act, this sharing of information between Philip McTigue in one agency to so-and-so in law enforcement could only occur when obtained from surveillance with the ‘primary purpose’ of national security.

The PATRIOT Act changed this to read that only the ‘significant purpose’ for the surveillance had to be national security thus allowing for better sharing of information obtained from intelligence agencies to law enforcement. Other significant changes from the PATRIOT Act included ‘roving’ warrants, which allowed for all of the phones being used by a targeted individual to be wire tapped which later became very controversial as it was alleged the federal government and the IC were abusing this and over stepping their authority. The PATRIOT Act also gave law enforcement and domestic intelligence agencies, like the FBI, the right to require banks to provide the identity of individuals who had suspicious activity in their accounts, allowed for increased access to private records, the ability to conduct surveillance into emails and computers, nationwide search warrants and detention for immigrants who were suspected of terrorist activities. Although many of these PATRIOT Act changes had sunset dates, or expiration dates, most sitting Presidents have reauthorized most of these provisions in the name of continued strong domestic intelligence collection capabilities.

After World War II, the IC was still a growing entity within the federal government and global threats included primarily the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Other global conflicts, although certainly within the scope of the IC, did not present direct challenges to homeland security or to national defense for the U.S. But with the growth of the Soviet Union, the U.S. saw a growth in the threats to homeland security. These threats can be summarized by the pinnacle of tensions between these countries during the Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962. These global tensions soon spread to other Middle Eastern and Asian affairs in the 1970’s to include events like the 1973 Oil Embargo, the Iranian Revolution, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the siege on the U.S. embassy in Pakistan, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and, of course, the Vietnam War.

During these growing times of conflict on a global level, the foreign intelligence activities of the U.S. became more and more empowered and capable. The U.S. foreign intelligence community became very adept at what their roles were and how they could manipulate outcomes globally. The U.S. IC became very aware of the fact that they had become a powerful new weapon for the United States and were no longer standing on the sidelines and learning. Now the U.S. was globally involved in being the world’s police officer and the U.S. foreign IC capabilities were the eyes and ears for the U.S. These capabilities were not civilian agencies alone; the military intelligence assets had grown equally as capable as their civilian counter parts and were also actively engaged in environments from Asia and the Middle East to Central and South America.

Although technology certainly had made some dramatic increases from the end of WWII to the 1980’s, it still had not changed the overall way intelligence was occurring. The U.S. was still using elementary radar, poor aerial and satellite images, primitive GPS capabilities and communication was still at basic levels. This left technology as a growing, but inefficient part of intelligence collection for the IC and human sources continued to play a large and significant part in intelligence efforts.

Human intelligence or HUMINT in its basic form had been developed during the Cold War and was still the basic building block for U.S. foreign intelligence collection activities. But the Soviet Union and other conflict locations were essentially closed targets making it difficult for HUMINT activities as U.S. agents did not share either the language or physical characteristics of individuals in these geographical locations. This challenge of being relatively dependent on HUMINT tradecraft but requiring technology advancements to penetrate enemies in closed locations was a collision course that would also be brought to light after the events of September 11th, 2001.

As noted earlier, the events of 9/11 brought dramatic changes to how law enforcement and domestic intelligence collection occurred in the U.S.  But overarching changes were needed to more than just the domestic aspect of intelligence collection. The 9/11 Commission Report addressed many of these issues. In the report it was noted that before 9/11, the U.S. was trying to solve our issues with capabilities we had used “…in the last stages of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath” and went on to express these capabilities were insufficient and the U.S. had done very little to expand them. Some of the reasons noted in the report were that the U.S. had identified an overwhelming number of priorities, had flat budgets and was not funding necessary program improvements and was using an outdated leadership structure. Worse, the 9/11 Commission suggested that the possibility of bureaucratic rivalries played a part in these failures.

Required was a shift in focus for the IC, both domestically and foreign to begin looking for ways to improve and become pro-active in their collection efforts in an attempt to prevent, disrupt and contain terrorist and other threats to our homeland security and national defense. One significant change to the world since the early days of the Cold War and extending right into the late 1990’s was that after 2001, the technology industry had begun to grow exponentially and at an alarming rate. The technology Philip McTigue was exposed to, for example, at the beginning of the 21st century was far different to the technology that was used at the end of the decade. This was best described by John Kringen in his article about the ability for the U.S. to provide global coverage to the IC. Kringen called this new time a “hypersonic information space” that was now growing so fast it was helping to create policies, impacting global and political decisions and creating change so quickly that even those who were directly involved in technology growth were often shocked at the pace of growth and change.

The IC now needed to capitalize on this wave of technological improvements and move towards embracing capabilities that could take advantage of this growing sector. The HUMINT capabilities would need to be continually re-shaped and fostered, but a need for other collection disciplines would need to be developed. Kringen also notes in his article that with the collapse of the Soviets there was a need to refocus and prioritize the allocation of IC resources while expanding the technological abilities being utilized.

The growth of cell phone coverage, cell phone towers and improved integrations made phone communication a connected worldwide network of technology and provided the IC a great tool to penetrate in order to monitor additional terrorist activities. Coupled with this technology was the text messaging that accompanied it and continued to flourish in the early 2000’s. Mobile phones had revolutionized communication and, by the 2000’s the IC was very aware of the need to oversee this activity. But other technologies had also become much more significant. The Global Positioning System (GPS) technology had improved so much that it was not only used for aiming missiles, it was literally installed on almost every phone making the electronic positioning of objects on earth far less complicated to determine. This was another aspect of the technological revolution that the IC could take advantage of to locate and eliminate their enemies.

Other advancements were taking place, including the widespread use of the internet globally, cyber-technology, drones, real time aerial imagery, improved satellite imagery and more satellites in space for communication and imagery collection. The vast collection of spatial and temporal data drove the IC to find new ways to exploit this overwhelming information being collected in an effort to improve their overall capabilities and defeat terrorism. Some of this data being collected included electronic surveillance of email traffic between known terror groups and individuals, new abilities to wiretap communications and to cyber-penetrate databases and social media sites were also part of the technological growth being witnessed by the world. Data mining techniques being used by the IC was now resulting in faster and more efficient interception of phone and other communication methods and this was linked to the ability to identify where these transmissions originated from and sometimes even who had sent them.

As the enemies of the U.S. found new ways to communicate and continually looked for more secure ways to avoid the U.S. foreign IC, the U.S. continued to make technical intelligence collection disciplines a priority funding these efforts to remain ahead of the terrorist actions. With the increase in technology the U.S. foreign IC was now conducting counter espionage and going online and monitoring cyberspace to not only detect attacks from foreign states such as North Korea and Russia, but also to attack and monitor non-state actors such as terrorist groups.

This requirement to combat terrorism continued for the foreign U.S. IC agencies and the focus was on providing national defense. For these U.S. foreign IC agencies such as the CIA, the same stringent moral and legal obligations that forced accountability domestically for agencies like the FBI were not present allowing them great flexibility on operations and methodology. Clearly the rules and laws that govern domestic law enforcement and intelligence collection activities differ greatly from those of the U.S. foreign intelligence community. However, these distinctions can become unclear when international terror groups begin to focus actions in the domestic U.S. causing problematic counter-terrorism efforts.

The growing complexities of the current security environment and the differences in how foreign and domestic intelligence agencies’ respond to these complexities shine a light on the blurred and grayed lines between incidents that cross over these differing institutions. When an incident includes both domestic and foreign agencies, the melding and the sharing of information becomes complicated and in the past, fraught with bureaucracy and competing interests. With the structural changes and policy changes earlier discussed, some of these complications have already been addressed.

Likewise, even at the U.S. foreign IC level, there have been changes instituted that clearly show there have been some significant strides made to improve our technical collection disciplines. New abilities by the U.S. foreign IC show that at times we have almost too much intelligence and data coming in, which constantly drives the IC to prioritize what targets they want to focus on. At the foreign IC level for the U.S. we see these technical collection efforts, prioritizing threats and funding new technical methods to pursue threats against the U.S. has begun to improve our security and defenses. At the domestic law enforcement and intelligence level, we have allowed greater flexibility, restructured leadership and put in place better oversight to combat past abuse of domestic activities thus preserving civil liberties that our democracy is built upon. But the conflux of domestic and foreign intelligence when working on an event that has broached both disciplines can still be a complicated matter.

To address this issue, the U.S. government has made other changes that help bring together the rigid environment domestic intelligence agencies work within while at the same time being understanding of the fact that foreign intelligence agencies do not operate with similar restrictions, nor should they. As previously mentioned, one of those changes was the NCTC, which leads and integrates the national counterterrorism activities from both the foreign and domestic intelligence communities. As identified by the 9/11 Commission Report, one of the failures of the U.S. prior to 9/11 was to “find a way of pooling intelligence and using it to guide the planning and assignment of responsibilities.” The NCTC serves as that repository for a partnership between agencies such as the FBI and the CIA. On their website, they also state they assign responsibilities and roles to lead intelligence agencies for counterterrorism activities consistent with applicable laws.

Another effort to improve the complexities of domestic and foreign intelligence agencies working together is the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces that have been created across the U.S.  There are one of these units in 104 cities across the U.S. consisting of local law enforcement agencies and intelligence units from both the federal and domestic agencies. The FBI claims these teams are a one stop shop for information regarding terrorist activities and enable an intelligence sharing environment between all of the differing federal and domestic agencies that make up each of the JTTF’s. The FBI also states these units help coordinate all of their activities through the National Joint Terrorism Task Force to ensure that intelligence and information flows freely from one unit to another.

Finally one last significant effort has been implemented by the U.S. to find ways to decrease the frictions and increase information sharing between domestic and foreign intelligence agencies when operating jointly within the U.S. borders. These are the state and major urban area Fusion Centers. These Fusion Centers serve as the focal point for the receipt, analysis, gathering, and sharing of threat-related information between federal, state and local law enforcement and intelligent agencies. Fusion Centers claim a collaborative environment between the DHS and these agencies working within the 72 centers across the country. These centers create a sharing capability between the homeland security enterprise (HSE) and the federal and domestic agencies that they work with.

Although there have been significant efforts put forth by the U.S. government since 9/11 to increase both domestic and foreign intelligence capabilities, there still are large differences on how they operate, requiring different rules for different environments for the interior and exterior of the U.S. Philip McTigue in one agency, for example, may be bound my different rules than someone in another agency. Much of these differences are centered on lawful activity requirements and civil liberties within the borders of the U.S. Many of the changes in the policies and procedures since 9/11 have tried to overcome these differences by creating a better sharing and collaborative environment.

By having so many different entities and avenues to track and report domestic intelligence incidents, it has actually created an even more complicated system and information cycled through one environment like a Fusion Center can fail to be shared with another environment like the JTTF’s. In order to improve U.S. intelligence practices and limit the separation between foreign and domestic intelligence activities, the U.S. should meld these Fusion Centers and JTTF’s under the NCTC, allowing for quicker and uninterrupted sharing of intelligence.


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7 thoughts on “Philip McTigue: U.S. Intelligence Practices, Foreign and Domestic Interagency Sharing

  1. Phil,

    some great points. Our unique background in both LE and Intelligence centered backgrounds gives you a unique perspective and inside view. I really enjoyed it.

  2. I’m definitely for greater cooperation between agencies and simplifying things as much as possible. As Phil McTigue pointed out in this article, our government has enacted many changes over the years to get the different agencies to share information better and to collaborate more so that we are better prepared and able to handle problems. This has also led to greater complexity, which means the system is more vulnerable to failure at critical times. Unfortunately, bureaucracies are inherently inefficient even when they’re working at their best. If there was a way to make bureaucracies more responsive and efficient, then a lot of these problems would go away but I’m not holding my breath.

    Although melding the FBI and CIA in some way to allow greater cooperation and efficiency would probably lead to more wins in the fight against terror, I don’t like anything that would change the core missions of either agency. I like the “separation of powers,” and the rules that they each have to follow. When you blur those lines, you leave open the possibility that someday, someone in charge will start taking us down the wrong path where we lose our liberties.

  3. Best article I have read Philip McTigue. Much better than a pundit or an armchair intellectual with zero on the ground experience, regurgitating talking points of other bean heads!

  4. Philip McTigue, this is a great article and really highlighted a serious issue in our government structure.

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