Domestic Intelligence

Domestic Intelligence

Domestic intelligence is a term for efforts by a government to obtain information about activities that pose an actual or putative threat to internal security. In authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, domestic intelligence-gathering by the government is a regular part of daily life, but in a liberal democratic system such as those of North America or Western European countries, it is more problematic. United States domestic intelligence programs of the post World War II era raised Americans' ire after they came to light, but in the wake of the September, 2001, terrorist attacks, many Americans and Europeans put aside fears of

A pedestrian passes under the arm of a traffic surveillance system in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
A pedestrian passes under the arm of a traffic surveillance system in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.

government surveillance in favor of a new demand for heightened security.

World War II to Watergate. Whereas most Americans of the postwar era knew that the intelligence services of the Soviet Union and other totalitarian states kept a close watch on their citizens, most had no idea of the extent to which their own government was watching certain elements. During the 1970s and later, information about massive domestic intelligence programs came to light. Among these was Shamrock, which involved the interception of telegrams and other forms of communication between 1945 and 1975. In another domestic intelligence/surveillance program, Chaos, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) monitored Vietnam War protesters between 1967 and 1972, looking for ties to the Soviets.

Revelation of these and other activities came to light in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which influenced an attitude among some citizens of suspicion toward the government. Questionable as they may have been in some regards, Shamrock and Chaos subjected only a fraction of the population to government scrutiny, but in the atmosphere of reaction that pervaded the mid-to late 1970s, many Americans began to assume that there was no limit to the government's desire for information on its citizens' private lives. These fears both led to, and were fueled by, investigations in Congress, most notably that of the Church Committee in the Senate.

The twenty first century. Since that time, government agencies have been placed under much tighter restrictions with regard to domestic intelligence and surveillance. The September, 2001, attacks, however, influenced a shift in a different direction. Congress, once suspicious of domestic intelligence-gathering, called for a new effort to root out potential terrorists on U.S. soil. The same was true in Europe, where countries such as Belgium—which had always restricted domestic intelligence efforts—gave their internal security services much freer rein.

During 2002, the U.S. executive and legislative branches debated the question of which agency should handle a new domestic intelligence effort: the FBI (formerly in charge of counterterrorism) or the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In February 2003, President George W. Bush placed the CIA in charge of a new domestic counterterrorism intelligence agency, to be formed later that year. The FBI would work with the CIA in the new unit.



Alden, Edward, and James Harding. "CIA Wins Battle to Defend U.S. Against Terror." Financial Times (February 15, 2003): 1.

Crawford, David. "Europe Eases Limits on Police, Intelligence Services—Fear of Islamist Terrorism Erodes Traditional Divide Between the Two Branches." Wall Street Journal (December 17, 2002): A15.

Eggen, Dan. "Bush Aims to Blend Counterterrorism Efforts." Washington Post (February 15, 2003): A16.

Johnston, David. "FBI Director Rejects Agency for Intelligence in United States." New York Times (December 20, 2002): A22.

Lichtblau, Eric. "FBI and CIA to Move Their Counterterror Units to a Single New Location." New York Times (February 15, 2003): A14.

Polmar, Norman, and Thomas B. Allen. Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage. New York: Random House, 1998.

Priest, Dana, and Juliet Eilperin. "Panel Finds No 'Smoking Gun' in Probe of 9/11 Intelligence Failures." Washington Post (July 11, 2002): A1.


Church Committee
CIA, Legal Restriction
Domestic Intelligence
FBI (United States Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Intelligence and democracy: Issues and Conflicts
Intelligence, United States Congressional oversight
Nixon Administration (1969–1974), United States National Security Policy
Operation Shamrock
Privacy: Legal and Ethical Issues
September 11 Terrorist Attacks on the United States
United States, Counter-terrorism Policy


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