Foreign agents infiltrated life in America, unseen and unchecked

America should have a domestic counterintelligence service to degrade and disrupt foreign intelligence operations on our soil, a service that combines both the intelligence tradecraft of the CIA and the investigative skills and law enforcement authority of the FBI.  

In December 2002, an investigation by the House and Senate Intelligence committees concluded “the FBI was unable to identify and monitor effectively the extent of activity by al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups operating in the United States.” Our premier national security system failed to properly share knowledge of the enemy in our midst. As a result, the United States suffered a devastating terrorist attack that killed thousands and shattered confidence in the nation’s protective services.  

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Today, a joint committee report would assuredly reach a similar conclusion about the nation’s inability to execute an effective counterintelligence mission.

The FBI claims to be both a law enforcement and intelligence organization and, for over 100 years, has kept our country’s social fabric resilient and strong. In a post-9/11 era, the FBI mission effectively incorporated a domestic counterterrorism role with a commensurate growth in its budget. However, claiming that the FBI is an intelligence organization does not actually make it one.

Today the FBI has the lead in countering foreign intelligence operations within the nation’s borders. Despite the bureau’s best efforts, it remains unprepared to carry out this core mission. Against the external security threats to our economy and democracy, the CIA is the first line of defense, the Department of Defense (DOD) is the greatest deterrent, and the FBI is the ultimate wall between a society in chaos and one governed by the rule of law. Yet, the FBI has failed to execute its counterintelligence mission because of its dispersed and decentralized management structure; an incompatible culture for counter-espionage; inadequate funding; and lack of prioritization in proper counterintelligence training.

We now face a situation where the number foreign intelligence officers compared to the total number of FBI counterintelligence staff is heavily tilted in favor of the enemy. We simply are unable to keep track of who is where and what they are doing. When we do know, the FBI response is only disruptive and not focused on winning the long game — recruiting the enemy and penetrating their ranks to steal secrets about plans and intentions.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE’s National Security Council (NSC) is responsible for ensuring that the FBI and CIA coordinate their respective efforts. The two organizations have, at best, a checkered history of collaboration and deconfliction. The dysfunctional relationship between them does not provide the sound basis for an effective national security strategy to challenge sophisticated, heavily-funded foreign intelligence operations under way on American soil.  

After 9/11, our nation’s leaders realized the dire threat of foreign sabotage. To confront this terror threat, the president and the Congress created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and completely restructured the U.S. Intelligence Community. Though the results arguably have been mixed, we have not experienced another major foreign terrorist attack.

Once again, we face a similar existential threat from foreign intelligence agents. It may not yet compare with the human casualties of 9/11; nevertheless, there is a very real casualty by undermining the country’s democratic institutions and global economic supremacy. Unchecked, the political divisions, violence and anti-Semitism within Europe today are an ugly testament to what our own future may witness.

For good reason, most of the work our national intelligence and law enforcement communities undertake is accomplished in secret. The immediate debate should be this: Is the U.S. national security infrastructure capable of deterring and defeating foreign intelligence activities within our borders? This debate should happen in the public domain.

While the FBI and CIA successfully focused resources on the terror threats in front of us, Russia and China walked in through our back door. More precisely, their agents have infiltrated our corporate boardrooms, scientific labs, universities, social media companies and political institutions with little or no detection.

The American public must be made aware of the risk in which this places our democracy, and the enormous advantage it gives to the enemy. We need a dedicated, forward-thinking leadership team drawn from both ranks that has the tradecraft experience and demonstrated professional collaboration to stem the tide of foreign intelligence activity on American soil.

Americans fear the overreaching powers of clandestine security organizations — that’s why we have multiple levels of oversight. However, the longer we delay the real benefits of domestic counterintelligence service aggregating FBI and CIA respective tradecraft, we leave the emerging domestic battlefield open to the enemy’s continued rapid advance.

Don Hepburn served with the U.S. intelligence community for over 25 years and held senior executive positions in both the CIA and FBI as chief of station and as deputy assistant director. He currently is president of Boanerges Solutions LLC.