Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement are actively exploring joining the U.S. Intelligence Community, The Daily Beast has learned.
The effort is helmed by a small cohort of career Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, and has been underway since the Obama administration, according to an ICE official familiar with the matter.
Internal advocates for joining the America’s spy agencies—known as the Intelligence Community or the IC—focus on the potential benefits to the agency’s work on counterproliferation, money laundering, counterterror, and cybercrime. The official added that joining the IC could also be useful for the agency’s immigration enforcement work––in particular, their efforts to find and arrest undocumented immigrants with criminal arrest warrants (known in ICE as fugitive aliens).
But civil liberties advocates and government watchdog groups—as well as some current and former U.S. officials—are concerned at the prospect of the nation’s immigration enforcers joining the ranks of America’s spies.
“The idea that ICE could potentially get access to warrantless surveillance is frankly terrifying,” Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, told The Daily Beast.
Patrick Toomey, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, also expressed concern.
“The prospect of ICE joining the Intelligence Community, if true, should sound alarm bells,” he said. “Such a move threatens to give an agency responsible for domestic immigration enforcement access to a vast pool of sensitive information collected by our spy agencies for foreign intelligence purposes. Those spying tools do not belong in the hands of ICE agents.”
If ICE joins the Intelligence Community, then its officials will have increased access to raw intelligence, unfiltered by analysts. This could prove useful to both of the agency’s components: Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which investigates transnational crimes, including drug trafficking, money laundering, cybercrimes, and arms trafficking; and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), which arrests and detains undocumented immigrants.
“ICE has for the past decade been keenly interested in joining the Intelligence Community,” Peter Vincent, general counsel for ICE under the Obama administration, told The Daily Beast. “ICE officials have felt that by doing so, they would have greater prestige and credibility and authority.”
The question is: at what price?
ICE’s two components sometimes work together on operations. Both components––HSI and ERO––could face challenges if the agency joins the Intelligence Community. Unlike most intelligence agencies, which focus on gathering information about America’s adversaries, ICE’s agents and officers deal with federal courts every day. If they use classified material to generate leads, that information could be inadmissible in court. Both the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which are in the Intelligence Community, deal with this issue. Adjusting would be a challenge for ICE.
Vincent said this could create “many potential mission creep spectres, especially in this current climate,” and that he doesn’t think it would be necessary for ICE to join the Intelligence Community.
“There would have to be massive changes,” said the current official.
Charlie Allen, formerly chief of intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security, told The Daily Beast he thinks this move would be unwise.
“I think it works fairly well,” he said of ICE’s intelligence work. “I don’t think we should complicate the architecture further.”
He said it’s “very vital and important” to take the head of ICE’s intelligence work into certain critical IC meetings, but added a larger change could complicate the way DHS handles intelligence issues.
“I do believe that it would be a step backward to make ICE a separate element within the U.S. Intelligence Community,” he said.
A spokesperson for ICE declined to comment on this story, and a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request.
But Vincent told The Daily Beast that this stop-and-start effort is more likely to gain White House support under President Donald Trump than it was under Obama. While Trump frequently lambasts the FBI, he has yet to say anything critical of ICE, the agency which arrests and detains undocumented immigrants.
A former senior ICE official told The Daily Beast that one possible outcome would be that part of ICE’s internal Office of Intelligence could join the IC. The former official added that some ICE officials currently have access to unfinished intelligence and counterintelligence products called Intelligence Information Reports. Joining the IC would give the agency greater access, a seat at the table to potentially influence the IC’s priorities, and a greater ability to share intelligence it gathers with the broader IC.
ICE officials would need additional training on how to minimize data involving U.S. persons the agency shares throughout the Intelligence Community, the former official added. Right now, ICE data on U.S. persons––meaning, all citizens, as well as non-citizens in the U.S.––isn’t automatically minimized, the official said. So officials would need training on how to protect U.S. persons’ identities before sharing their information throughout the broader IC––training which would be doable, but would take effort.
Trump could put ICE in the IC by executive order, though that would be unusual. A lengthy process is more likely. First, ICE officials would have to get approval of their efforts from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Then the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and members of Congress would consider the request.