WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency’s dominant role as the nation’s spy warehouse has spurred frequent tensions and turf fights with other federal intelligence agencies that want to use its surveillance tools for their own investigations, officials say.
Agencies working to curb drug trafficking, cyberattacks, money laundering, counterfeiting and even copyright infringement complain that their attempts to exploit the security agency’s vast resources have often been turned down because their own investigations are not considered a high enough priority, current and former government officials say.
Intelligence officials say they have been careful to limit the use of the security agency’s troves of data and eavesdropping spyware for fear they could be misused in ways that violate Americans’ privacy rights.
The recent disclosures of agency activities by its former contractor Edward J. Snowden have led to widespread criticism that its surveillance operations go too far and have prompted lawmakers in Washington to talk of reining them in. But out of public view, the intelligence community has been agitated in recent years for the opposite reason: frustrated officials outside the security agency say the spy tools are not used widely enough.
“It’s a very common complaint about N.S.A.,” said Timothy H. Edgar, a former senior intelligence official at the White House and at the office of the director of national intelligence. “They collect all this information, but it’s difficult for the other agencies to get access to what they want.”
“The other agencies feel they should be bigger players,” said Mr. Edgar, who heard many of the disputes before leaving government this year to become a visiting fellow at Brown University. “They view the N.S.A. — incorrectly, I think — as this big pot of data that they could go get if they were just able to pry it out of them.”
Smaller intelligence units within the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security have sometimes been given access to the security agency’s surveillance tools for particular cases, intelligence officials say.
But more often, their requests have been rejected because the links to terrorism or foreign intelligence, usually required by law or policy, are considered tenuous. Officials at some agencies see another motive — protecting the security agency’s turf — and have grown resentful over what they see as a second-tier status that has undermined their own investigations into security matters.
At the drug agency, for example, officials complained that they were blocked from using the security agency’s surveillance tools for several drug-trafficking cases in Latin America, which they said might be connected to financing terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere.
At the Homeland Security Department, officials have repeatedly sought to use the security agency’s Internet and telephone databases and other resources to trace cyberattacks on American targets that are believed to have stemmed from China, Russia and Eastern Europe, according to officials. They have often been rebuffed.
Officials at the other agencies, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the tensions, say the National Security Agency’s reluctance to allow access to data has been particularly frustrating because of post-Sept. 11 measures that were intended to encourage information-sharing among federal agencies.
In fact, a change made in 2008 in the executive order governing intelligence was intended to make it easier for the security agency to share surveillance information with other agencies if it was considered “relevant” to their own investigations. It has often been left to the national intelligence director’s office to referee the frequent disputes over how and when the security agency’s spy tools can be used. The director’s office declined to comment for this article.
Typically, the agencies request that the N.S.A. target individuals or groups for surveillance, search its databases for information about them, or share raw intelligence, rather than edited summaries, with them. If those under scrutiny are Americans, approval from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is required.
The security agency, whose mission is to spy overseas, and the F.B.I., its main partner in surveillance operations, dominate the process as the Justice Department’s main “customers” in seeking warrants from the intelligence court, with nearly 1,800 approved by the court last year.
In a statement, the security agency said that it “works closely with all intelligence community partners, and embeds liaison officers and other personnel at those agencies for the express purpose of ensuring N.S.A. is meeting their requirements and providing support to their missions.”
The security agency’s spy tools are attractive to other agencies for many reasons. Unlike traditional, narrowly tailored search warrants, those granted by the intelligence court often allow searches through records and data that are vast in scope. The standard of evidence needed to acquire them may be lower than in other courts, and the government may not be required to disclose for years, if ever, that someone was the focus of secret surveillance operations.
Decisions on using the security agency’s powers rest on many complicated variables, including a link to terrorism or “foreign intelligence,” the type of surveillance or data collection that is being conducted, the involvement of American targets, and the priority of the issue.
“Every agency wants to think that their mission has to be the highest priority,” said a former senior White House intelligence official involved in recent turf issues.
Other intelligence shops usually have quick access to N.S.A. tools and data on pressing matters of national security, like investigating a terrorism threat, planning battlefield operations or providing security for a presidential trip, officials say. But the conflicts arise during longer-term investigations with unclear foreign connections.
In pressing for greater access, a number of smaller agencies maintain that their cases involve legitimate national security threats and could be helped significantly by the N.S.A.’s ability to trace e-mails and Internet activity or other tools.
Drug agency officials, for instance, have sought a higher place for global drug trafficking on the intelligence community’s classified list of surveillance priorities, according to two officials.
Dawn Dearden, a drug agency spokeswoman, said it was comfortable allowing the N.S.A. and the F.B.I. to take the lead in seeking surveillance warrants. “We don’t have the authority, and we don’t want it, and that comes from the top down,” she said.
But privately, intelligence officials at the drug agency and elsewhere have complained that they feel shut out of the process by the N.S.A. and the F.B.I. from start to finish, with little input on what groups are targeted with surveillance and only sporadic access to the classified material that is ultimately collected.
Sometimes, security agency and bureau officials accuse the smaller agencies of exaggerating links to national security threats in their own cases when pushing for access to the security agency’s surveillance capabilities. Officials from the other agencies say that if a link to national security is considered legitimate, the F.B.I. will at times simply take over the case itself and work it with the N.S.A.
In one such case, the bureau took control of a Secret Service investigation after a hacker was linked to a foreign government, one law enforcement official said. Similarly, the bureau became more interested in investigating smuggled cigarettes as a means of financing terrorist groups after the case was developed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Mr. Edgar said officials in the national intelligence director’s office occasionally allow other agencies a role in identifying surveillance targets and seeing the results when it is relevant to their own inquiries. But more often, he acknowledged, the office has come down on the side of keeping the process held to an “exclusive club” at the N.S.A., the F.B.I. and the Justice Department, with help from the Central Intelligence Agency on foreign issues.
Officials in the national intelligence director’s office worry about opening the surveillance too widely beyond the security agency and the F.B.I. for fear of abuse, Mr. Edgar said. The two intelligence giants have been “burned” by past wiretapping controversies and know the political consequences if they venture too far afield, he added.
“I would have been very uncomfortable if we had let these other agencies get access to the raw N.S.A. data,” he said.
As furious as the public criticism of the security agency’s programs has been in the two months since Mr. Snowden’s disclosures, “it could have been much, much worse, if we had let these other agencies loose and we had real abuses,” Mr. Edgar said. “That was the nightmare scenario we were worried about, and that hasn’t happened.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
August 3, 2013
By ERIC LICHTBLAU and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
© 2013 The New York Times Company