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, according to current and former government officials.
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 US privacy protections.
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 Washington lawmakers to talk of reining them in.
But out of public view, there has been agitation in recent years for the opposite reason: some officials outside the security agency say the spy tools are not used widely enough.
“It’s a very common complaint about NSA,” 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] view the NSA — 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,” Edgar said.
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 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 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 on condition of anonymity, said the NSA’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.
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.