THE FBI OPERATES on the internet with unprecedented vigor and under loose rules, according to secret internal guidelines obtained by The Intercept, with undercover agents freely chatting online with unsuspecting people who are not even under investigation.
The bureau has made online counterterrorism a strategic focus, lavishing staff and attention on a clearinghouse project called Net Talon and measuring performance through such metrics as the amount of time agents spend online, how many postings they make, and the personas they create. The FBI’s virtual tentacles are so ubiquitous that the bureau sometimes finds itself investigating its own people.
Because terror groups have made effective use of online networks to spread propaganda and to connect with troubled individuals, the virtual realm has become a significant counterterrorism theater for the FBI. The bureau has given broad authority to agents operating online in order to ramp up counterterrorism sting operations, among other activities. But lawyers, experts, and activists express concern that the FBI’s aggressive use of undercover operations may be creating terrorists out of hapless people who say stupid things online.
The information in this story is drawn largely from the FBI’s Counterterrorism Policy Guide, a manual for agents working on both international and domestic terrorism cases. The document, classified secret, is dated April 1, 2015, and has not been previously released.
The Intercept is publishing sections of the guide dealing with the FBI’s online investigations, a subject on which the bureau has offered little transparency. Other guidance on undercover operations has been made public in the past, but none that goes into as much detail on online investigations.
According to the guide, an online counterterrorism investigation can target websites or online networks that the FBI believes terrorists are using “to encourage and recruit members” or to spread propaganda. Such probes may extend to the administrators or creators of those forums, as well as people engaged in “the development of communications security practices” or “acting as ‘virtual couriers’ for terrorist organizations by passing online messages among members or leadership.”
The guide classes as online investigations those that rely primarily on online informants or undercover employees, and those that involve surveilling internet facilities or foreign websites hosted on U.S. servers. The FBI often runs such operations jointly with other U.S. intelligence agencies or “international partners,” according to the document.
Since 2008, the Counterterrorism Division has coordinated these operations under a program called the Net Talon National Initiative. Net Talon uses informants, linguists, and FBI employees working undercover, posing as ordinary internet users, to zero in on terrorists’ use of the internet, according to the guide. The initiative was meant to centralize expertise on particular targets and platforms, to “address intelligence gaps,” and to create a clearinghouse of the intelligence the bureau has collected on terrorists’ use of the internet.
The FBI’s online activities are apparently pervasive and uncoordinated enough to lead to confusion. The document refers to “resources being wasted by investigating or collecting on FBI online identities,” including undercover employees, informants, or people who have already been investigated by other offices or agencies. An FBI official told the Intercept, “You would be in a forum, and you’re like, ‘This person’s way out there,’ and we’ve gone and opened up a case, and sometimes that was a local police department, or a friendly foreign service. There are still instances of that, and deconfliction is still necessary.”