Effective Law enforcement and criminal investigation in the US 


Criminal investigations usually involve collection of data and evidence applied in establishing criminal liability. Criminal investigations, therefore, form an integral part of national security and criminal justice system. 

In the US, a number of federal security agencies are tasked with criminal investigations and general enforcement of the law. These include the National Security Agency (NSA), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX), the National Intelligence Council (NIC), and the Open Source Center (OSC) (Conser, Paynich, & Gingerich, 2013). Other law enforcement agencies which exist at the State level are mainly State Police Departments.

The National Security Agency (NSA) is charged with undertaking the collection, critical analysis and reporting of foreign intelligence data and its legal authority is entrenched in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). Unlike the NSA, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is the country’s domestic law enforcement agency, whose powers range from criminal investigations to meeting all domestic intelligence needs (Masse & Krouse, 2003). The FBI was established in 1908 as the US Justice Bureau of Justice by President Theodore Roosevelt, as the principal law enforcement agency for the US. Through its various departments, the FBI has been involved in transnational crime investigations such as terrorism, and has branches around the world.   

The jurisdiction of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) extends to collection, production and management of foreign data in relation to military affairs, which is used by policy makers in making decisions on terrorism, dangerous weapons, among others. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) integrates all intelligence related data with a view to defending the security interests of the US while the National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX) comes up with strategy in regard to counterintelligence. The National Intelligence Council (NIC) is composed of intelligence experts and analysts and uses collected data to facilitate strategic analysis and the Open Source Center (OSC) analyzes and disseminates public data useful in national security.

To uncover criminal activities and enable knowledge-based intervention, security agencies have to collect, analyze and interpret data concerning such activities. Research has shown that timely and accurate information is critical to safeguarding national security and enhancing useful criminal investigations. Usually, detectives identify and collect information which they instructive to determining whether a crime has been committed and if so, by whom. The methods employed in collection and analysis of intelligence information vary from one situation to another.

The Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) is a commonly used mechanism and involves making use of data that is publicly available in resources such as newspapers, search engines, websites, social media, among others. Obtaining such information does not involve any legal processes as the same is not within private space. The OSINT process involves extraction of given information from an open source, upon a request or need to conduct an intelligence study. Thereafter, the collected data is analyzed and assessed by an expert before preparing an intelligence report. To many analysts, OSINT is a source of first resort because it serves as the first step in the process of investigations and collection of intelligence. Compared to other sources of intelligence information, OSINT is easily available, its collection and analysis cheap (Schaurer & Störger, 2012). Many security agencies recognize that data collected from open sources is not only cost effective but also strategic.

Although OSINT has been employed for a long time, analysts often fail to recognize new open sources of information presented by the emergence of the internet. They ignore the fact that most people across the globe are internet users. As at 30th June 2017, the internet had approximately 3,885,567,619, which is predicted to rise to 4 billion by the year 20120 (Hassan & Hijazi, 2018). Moreover, lack of specialized tools to gather and analyze data collected from the internet makes it difficult for security agencies to benefit from internet-based intelligence information. Recent experiences in the US have clearly shown that ‘modern’ crimes such as terrorism are perpetuated through the internet. For example, many terrorist-linked websites and social media pages have become an effective tool in spreading propaganda and fear, and without the use of advanced tools such as topic detectors, it would be almost impossible to trace information on such criminal activities. In addition, a thorough understanding of the components and layers of the internet is required. The surface web is the part of the internet accessible through mainstream internet browsers, the deep web is not indexed in the mainstream browsers while the dark web can only be accessed through specialized software. 

Unlike most sources of intelligence, internet-based OSINT is borderless and can help security agencies in discovering and collecting information useful for criminal investigations and for deterring commission of crimes. Unlimited amounts of data lie in internet spaces such as websites, search engines and social media profiles, and if properly searched and analyzed, they could be of immeasurable intelligence value.



From the foregoing background, it becomes clear that, if used properly, OSINT presents an affordable and viable intelligence collection mechanism, which federal and state security agencies can tap into. However, it is imperative for security agencies to pay due regard to First Amendment issues that may be raised by internet-based OSINT since not all information shared through the internet is of a public character.



Conser, J., Paynich, R., & Gingerich, T. (2013). Law enforcement in the United States. Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Hassan, N. A., & Hijazi, R. (2018). Open Source Intelligence Methods and Tools.

Margulies, P. (2008). True Believers at Law: National Security Agendas, the Regulation of Lawyers, and the Separation of Powers. Maryland Law Review.

Osterburg, J. W. (2016). Criminal investigation: A method for reconstructing the past. Place of publication not identified: Taylor & Francis.

T Masse & W Krouse (2003). The FBI: Past, Present, and Future. CRS Report for Congress. 

Schaurer, F., & Störger, J. The Evolution of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies,19(3). Retrieved 2012.

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