The Central Intelligence Agency has a secret data collection program that includes some information about Americans, according to two U.S. Senators with knowledge of the program. The nature of the collection, how it is conducted, and the extent to which it has occurred isn’t at all clear, though the senators have characterized the program as involving “bulk collection” and claim that the CIA spent years hiding it from the public and Congress.
The congressmen in question, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), both became privy to the program via their seats on the Senate Intelligence Committee. They previously urged top spy officials to declassify details of the secret program, which was originally authorized via Executive Order 12333, a broad legal mandate for intelligence powers that was originally signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
The program was apparently revealed to the Senate Intelligence Committee last year in a classified report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), a federal watchdog group designed to provide oversight of the U.S. intelligence community. That report, titled “Deep Dive II,” divulged “a secret bulk collection program and problems with how the agency searches and handles Americans’ information,” Wyden’s office has said.
News of this whole thing was made public Thursday after the CIA declassified portions of a letter previously sent by Wyden and Heinrich to the heads of U.S. intelligence about the program.
The letter, which remains heavily redacted, asks Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William J. Burns to publicly release details of the secret program, which the senators characterize as “entirely outside the statutory framework that Congress and the public believe govern this collection, and without any of the judicial, congressional or even executive branch oversight that comes from [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] collection.” You can see an excerpt of the letter below.
It’s not entirely clear what any of that means, though it doesn’t sound particularly great. The Wall Street Journal comments that the CIA is “generally prohibited by law from engaging in domestic spying” but that some spying programs “collect broad streams of internet or telephone data in a way that can scoop up information on Americans, such as when someone is communicating with a target of surveillance who lives overseas.”
“[W]hat these documents demonstrate is that many of the same concerns that Americans have about their privacy and civil liberties also apply to how the CIA collects and handles information under executive order and outside the FISA law,” Wyden and Heinrich said in a joint statement Thursday. “In particular, these documents reveal serious problems associated with warrantless backdoor searches of Americans, the same issue that has generated bipartisan concern in the FISA context.”
FISA was originally set up to provide legal boundaries for how America’s spy agencies collect information. It was passed by Congress in 1978 after a multitude of murky spying scandals involving the U.S. intelligence community. Critics have often noted the imperfect nature of its regulatory powers.
When reached for comment Thursday, the C.I.A.’s privacy and civil liberties officer, Kristi Scott, told the New York Times the following: “C.I.A. recognizes and takes very seriously our obligation to respect the privacy and civil liberties of U.S. persons in the conduct of our vital national security mission, and conducts our activities, including collection activities, in compliance with U.S. law, Executive Order 12333 and our attorney general guidelines,” she said. “C.I.A. is committed to transparency consistent with our obligation to protect intelligence sources and methods.”
The fallout from the senators’ claims is still breaking. The American Civil Liberties Union was quick to comment Thursday night.
“Newly declassified documents reveal that the CIA has been secretly conducting massive surveillance programs that capture Americans’ private information,” the ACLU tweeted. “These reports raise serious questions about what information of ours the CIA is vacuuming up in bulk and how the agency exploits that information to spy on Americans. This invasion of our privacy must stop.”