Domestic CIA Legal Authorities

James Slate
11 min readSep 4, 2018

Iv’e finally got around to watching the first Sicario (yes I know im late). While watching the movie I saw some bizarre claims about the CIA’s Mission and Legal Authorities, so I thought id go over the Agency’s Legal Authorities Domestically here. There was also so confusion online about this as well. But before I do that I stumbled across this thread which speculated as to why the CIA cannot operate in the United States, and because of the inaccuracies I will first respond to that.

The Original poster says:

Well damn the CIA is so damn rogue that we can’t even TRUST them to operate solo within the United States….

That’s not at all why the CIA has a very Limited Domestic Function. The 1947 National Security Act which established the Agency contains important prohibitions, providing that CIA “shall have no police, subpoena, or law enforcement powers or internal security functions.” 50 U.S.C. § 3036(d)(1). This restriction, known as the “law enforcement proviso,” reflects then-recent memories of the German Gestapo and concerns about a U.S. secret police. It also reflects CIA’s focus on foreign intelligence, leaving the FBI more focused on domestic intelligence. Giving the CIA or any Intelligence Agency Law Enforcement powers would be a major threat to civil liberties. That’s why all Liberal Democracies have both an Foreign Intelligence Agency and a Domestic Intelligence Agency. Even Russia separates Intelligence and Law Enforcement (at least in theory)

Also, claims made that the CIA is rogue is false as well.

CIA activities are continually reviewed by a variety of internal and external oversight bodies. Within the CIA, OGC and the Office of Inspector General (OIG) are each led by an officer who, like the Director, is appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. A substantial percentage of OGC attorneys are collocated with analysts, operators, and other professional personnel within the CIA’s Mission Centers and other CIA elements. OIG accomplishes its mission to provide objective oversight and detect fraud, waste, and abuse, through audits, inspections, and investigations. CIA officers, regardless of grade or position, are encouraged to consult with OGC and OIG as appropriate, and to report any suspected violations of law or policy. The CIA respects whistleblower protection within the Intelligence Community, and does not tolerate reprisals or the threat of reprisals against employees on the basis of protected disclosures.

The CIA’s PCLO provides advice and assistance to senior CIA officials regarding privacy and civil liberties concerns, including those related to these Procedures. The CIA recently re-established this position as a dedicated full-time appointment, recognizing its importance to the CIA’s mission. The PCLO is taking a leading role in the public discussion regarding these Procedures.

Within the Executive Branch, the CIA’s accountability begins with the President of the United States and the National Security Council. The CIA reports to the President in furtherance of its national security responsibilities, and is prohibited from engaging in any activities for purposes of affecting or interfering with the domestic political process. The CIA also engages with and is accountable to independent entities within the Executive Branch, including the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, the Intelligence Oversight Board, and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

The accomplishment of the CIA’s mission is enhanced by engagement with, and accountability to, other executive branch agencies. Within the Intelligence Community, for example, the CIA is governed by directives issued by the Director of National Intelligence. CIA activities are also reviewed by the Department of Justice in various contexts, such as the National Security Division’s audits of intelligence activities authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the Office of Legal Counsel’s review of important legal issues relevant to the CIA’s activities. The CIA worked extensively with the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in developing these Procedures.

Ultimately, the CIA is accountable to the American people. The CIA gives meaning to this oversight, in part, through its legal obligation to keep Congress fully and currently informed of intelligence activities. The CIA operates in accordance with oversight from US elected representatives. In the Executive Branch, the National Security Council (NSC) — which includes the president, vice president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense — provides guidance and direction for national foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities. In Congress, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), as well as other committees, closely monitor the Agency’s reporting and programs.

There’s also some other inaccuracies:

Thee same CIA that was conducting black ops activities for the purpose of “controlling” the drug trade as illustrated in this film is the same one with scrupulous intelligence gathering tactics it has employed LONG BEFORE Obama was in office.

Regarding past allegations of CIA involvement in drug trafficking, the CIA Inspector General* found no evidence to substantiate the charges that the CIA or its employees conspired with or assisted Contra-related organizations or individuals in drug trafficking to raise funds for the Contras or for any other purpose. In fact, the CIA plays a crucial role in combating drug trafficking by providing intelligence information to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the State Department.

You’re gonna sit their and say that the CIA isn’t capable or has never committed acts of murder

Executive Order 12333 of 1981 explicitly prohibits the CIA from engaging, either directly or indirectly, in assassinations. Internal safeguards and the congressional oversight process assure compliance. The CIA does conduct Targeted Killings in the form of Drone strikes, yes against Al Qaeda and other associated forces. Unrelated to the films points about Mexico and the Drug trade.

They’re technically not a law enforcement agency and can’t arrest anybody.

This one’s actually true. The public often confuses the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) responsibilities with that of the CIA. The CIA does not have law enforcement authority and does not collect information on American citizens. The CIA’s sole responsibility is to collect intelligence and information overseas. The FBI is the government agency that investigates crimes on American soil and against American citizens abroad. The FBI is also responsible for intelligence matters in the United States, especially those directed against US citizens. The two agencies work closely together, but their roles in keeping America safe are very different.

The CIA would never operate directly, even if they could.Especially against a formidable force e.i Cartels, Mafias etc

Well that’s not true either. The CIA’s Special Operations Group (SOG) does operate directly against Terrorist Organizations and in wartime. When we fought the Iraq War, our ground forces came from the South, using our friends in Kuwait as a starting point. SOG (also called CIA paramilitary) dropped in from the North, two days earlier than anybody else! They were blowing up ammunition depots and doing other crazy things to distract and attract the attention of the entire military of Iraq, with no backup for weeks besides air support. Otherwise it provides targeting for US Special Forces (JSOC) where another American units conduct a clandestine activity.

Domestic CIA Authorities and Sicario

So this is the claim made in the Movie Sicario:

Matt: All right. Good. You guys will hang back when we get there, okay?

Kate: Then why are we going?

Matt: Cause CIA can’t operate within US borders…

Matt & Reggie: …without a domestic agency attached.

Matt: I told you you’d be useful.

Kate: So, that’s it. That’s why I’m here.

Matt: Yeah, that’s it. That’s why you’re here.

And the explanations for this line were false as well

Since the FBI have authorities to operate within the boarder of the United States and the CIA does not, by Macer being present during the operation this gives the CIA certain authorities that they would not have without a joint task force. Macer is pretty much a pawn that gives the CIA the ability to conduct this operation. The fact that she didn’t understand this made me dislike her character, any FBI agent when understand their authorities and what they offer when working with a task force. The fact that she fought against this operation throughout the movie was rather irritating but I understand that it adds drama, suspense, and brings additional conflict to the movie.

None of this is accurate however. This movie was so inaccurate that the CIA actually reviewed it here. Hollywood’s take that the CIA cannot operate in the United States unless “assisting” another federal agency; and Emily Blunt’s character was simply to provide legal cover is, as the article states “bizzare”.

The Latest CIA AG Guidelines explain the Agency’s ability to Assist Law Enforcement Authorities within the United States

In accordance with Section 2.6 of Executive Order 12333, the CIA may:

Cooperate with appropriate law enforcement agencies for the purpose of protecting the employees,
information, property, and facilities of any element of the Intelligence Community;Unless otherwise precluded by law, such as Section lil4A(d)(1) of the National Security Act,participate in law enforcement activities to investigate or prevent clandestine intelligence activities by foreign powers, or international terrorist or narcotics activities;Provide specialized equipment, technical knowledge, or assistance of expert personnel for use by any
department or agency, or, when lives are endangered, to support local law enforcement agencies.
Provision of assistance by expert personnel shall be approved in each case by the General Counsel;
Render any other assistance and cooperation to law enforcement or other civil authorities not precluded by applicable law, such as Section of the National Security Act

The National Security Act prohibits the CIA from exercising police or subpoena powers or engaging in law enforcement or internal security functions. As detailed in Section 2.2.3, Executive Order 12333 permits the
CIA to assist law enforcement and other civil authorities in limited circumstances that do not violate this statutory prohibition. Any requests from the FBI (or other law enforcement agency) to assist with a law enforcement activity must receive careful review prior to approval and will require consideration of applicable CIA regulations.

The Older CIA Guidelines reiterate this as well in a bit more depth:

CIA may:

Cooperate with appropriate law enforcement agencies for the purpose of protecting the employees, information, property, and facilities of any agency within the Intelligence Community.

Unless otherwise precluded by the law enforcement provison of the National Security Act of 1947 or E.O. 12333, participate in law enforcement activities to investigate or prevent clandestine intelligence activities by foreign powers or international terrorist or narcotics activities.

Provide specialized equipment, technical knowledge, or assistance of expert personnel, which personnel assistance shall be approved in each case by the General Counsel, for use by any department or agency, or when lives are endangered, to support local law enforcement agencies.

Render any other assistance and cooperation to law enforcement authorities not precluded by the law enforcement proviso of the National Security Act of 1947 or other applicable law.

CIA may provide generalized training of U.S. law enforcement personnel, whether or not undertaken on the premises of Federal, State, or local law enforcement agencies, in consultation with the Office of General Counsel (OGC).

CIA may provide assistance to U.S. Government agencies involved in investigations of export control violations, international terrorism, and international narcotics trafficking, including the provision of technical equipment for overseas operations, provided the equipment is not operated by CIA personnel, and the assistance is concurred in by the General Counsel, or his designee, and approved by the appropriate Deputy Director, or his designee.

CIA may not participate in domestic operations of other agencies in these areas unless such participation is determined by the General Counsel to be consistent with the National Security Act of 1947 and is approved by the DCI or DDCI.

Under the framework established by Executive Order 12333, the CIA’s intelligence activities are primarily focused outside the United States. The FBI is responsible for coordination of clandestine collection of foreign intelligence through human sources or human-enabled means and counterintelligence activities inside the United States. The CIA can, however, generally cooperate with the FBI to collect foreign intelligence within the United States, subject to the restrictions imposed by statute, Executive Order 12333, the Attorney General Guidelines, and other legal and policy requirements.

Specifically, the National Security Act prohibits the CIA from exercising police or subpoena powers or otherwise engaging in law enforcement or internal security functions, with the exception of the security protective officers who protect CIA facilities within a limited jurisdiction pursuant to the CIA Act. If, for example, the FBI has a cooperative relationship with an individual inside the United States who provides foreign intelligence information, the FBI may appropriately consult with the CIA regarding the relationship, and the CIA may continue the relationship for intelligence purposes should the individual travel overseas.

So how does this relate to Sicario? The claims made in the movie are true in a sense, the CIA can assist Law Enforcement and Civil Authorities on American Soil in a limited basis as described above. It cannot “Act” on American Soil in the sense that its performing Domestic Operations like those in the movie, as that would violate the National Security Act of 1947 and other Internal CIA Guidelines. Providing “Assistance” in the manner described in the film would not be consistent with Section 2.6 of Executive Order 12333 or the National Security Act of 1947.

There’s also another Scene which takes a sensationalized look at the Agency’s use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. Matt and Alejandro waterboard a prisoner and learn the location of the cartel leader in Mexico. In the actual RDI Program, CIA interrogations were guided by strict protocols and monitored by medical personnel. Despite the impressions created by the movie, interrogators did not “ad-lib” waterboardings; on the contrary, writ-ten approval from superiors was always required in advance.Restrictions were placed on the procedure, such as time limits for how long water could be poured — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed figured them out and mocked his interrogators using his fingers to count off the seconds.

It also gives a false impression as to why Enhanced Interrogation Techniques were used. Enhanced interrogation techniques were never used to elicit intelligence; they were used to take a detainee from a state of resistance to a state of cooperation. To gauge whether the detainee had made the decision to cooperate, the CIA posed questions it could already answer. Once cooperation was established, “interrogation” stopped and never resumed, and the detainee moved into “debriefing,” through which the agency was able to extract valuable intelligence.

However this was all a part of the past. The movie takes place in either 2014 or 2015, years after Executive Order 13491 was passed which prohibited the use of Waterboarding and other Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.
The Senate in 2015 passed the Feinstein-Mccain amendment to codify President Obama’s executive order requiring that all US government officials use only the techniques contained in the Army Field Manual to interrogate captured terrorists.

There would be no justification for using an extreme technique like Waterboarding here either. Selling crack is a crime, trying to blow up an airplane is an act of war.This is the same reason why we don’t send Special Operations Forces to bust in into crack dens or target crack dealers with Predator drones. So no, something like this wouldn’t even happen during the period where the RDI program was in full effect. The Bush administration set a very high bar — of the roughly 100,000 people detained in the course of the war on terror, only 30 individuals had any enhanced techniques applied, and just three were waterboarded.

We used enhanced interrogation techniques as a last resort, and on only a few individuals who have unique information about planned mass casualty attacks, and who are withholding that information. The CIA used the least coercive method necessary to get information. . And we used the techniques for a moral purpose — not to elicit confessions or to punish, but to protect society and save innocent lives.

We can all be thankful that the actual CIA bears no resemblance to the one depicted in Sicario.



James Slate

I Defend America and its Foreign Policy from a Liberal Perspective.