All the President's Spies: Private-Public Intelligence Partnerships in the War on Terror

66 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2008

See all articles by Jon D. Michaels

Jon D. Michaels

University of California, Los Angeles - School of Law

Date Written: October 6, 2008


Commentators who have examined the Executive's post-September 11 practice of persuading corporations to enter into informal and, at times, unlawful intelligence-gathering partnerships have largely viewed the participating firms as co-conspirators, unwitting pawns, or coerced captives of the Executive-and understandably so. After all, participating corporations have been instrumental in enabling U.S. intelligence officials to conduct domestic surveillance and intelligence activities outside of the congressionally imposed framework of court orders and subpoenas, and also outside of the ambit of inter-branch oversight. Yet despite their track record as enablers, corporations are uniquely positioned to help rein in the currently unregulated practices.

This Article analyzes corporate-government agreements and provides the rationale and blueprint for shifting the principal locus of compliance with existing laws (and oversight obligations) from the intelligence officials to the corporations. The inquiry begins by laying out the Article's fundamental postulates: the intelligence agencies depend on private actors for information gathering; the Executive is institutionally predisposed to seek maximum discretion in conducting intelligence operations, both because of the overwhelming pressure to thwart acts of terrorism and because its officials are relatively immune from serious legal or political sanction for proceeding ultra vires; and, the Executive may choose to conduct intelligence policy through informal collaborations notwithstanding the legal, political, and economic harms these shadowy bargains may generate.

To mitigate these harms and enhance the legitimacy of domestic intelligence-gathering practices, the Article proposes to flip the private-public partnerships on their heads, converting the privatization schemes from the handmaidens of inscrutable intelligence policy into the guarantors of a new counterterrorism regime built on legality, integrity, and accountability. Whereas the Executive has shown itself willing (and able) to disregard legal requirements, the corporations lack the incentive and institutional capacity to act with similar abandon.

Thus, the Article recommends that Congress consider using these unlikely - but more pliable - corporate allies as gatekeepers, strengthening the currently incomplete and oft-bypassed legal framework for intelligence operations by obligating the firms to condition their intelligence-gathering cooperation on the Executive's compliance with legal formalities. Ultimately, the Article seeks not only to provide practical insights into the instant problems with unaccountable intelligence operations, but also to spark normative thinking both about how to manage a counterterrorism policy that is rapidly outgrowing the traditional boundaries of private versus public governance and, more generally, about how to involve private actors (and harness their self-interests) in efforts to boost compliance in other failing or failed public-law-enforcement paradigms.

Keywords: war on terror, national security law, counterterrorism Law, intelligence law, private-public partnerships, privatization, government contracting, surveillance, FISA

Suggested Citation

Michaels, Jon D., All the President's Spies: Private-Public Intelligence Partnerships in the War on Terror (October 6, 2008). California Law Review, Vol. 96, p. 901, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Jon D. Michaels (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States

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