Civil liberties watchdogs condemn agency’s collection of domestic data without congressional or court approval or oversight
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been secretly collecting Americans’ private information in bulk, according to newly declassified documents that prompted condemnation from civil liberties watchdogs.
The surveillance program was exposed on Thursday by two Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico alleged that the CIA has long concealed it from the public and Congress.
The pair sent a letter to top intelligence officials arguing that the program operates “outside the statutory framework that Congress and the public believe govern this collection”.
Wyden and Heinrich added: “It is critical that Congress not legislate without awareness of a … CIA program, and that the American public not be misled into believe that the reforms in any reauthorization legislation fully cover the IC’s collection of their records.”
The two senators, frequent critics of the CIA, said they are not allowed to reveal specifics about what type of data has been subject to bulk collection and called for more details about the program to be declassified.
Large parts of the letter, which was sent in April 2021 and declassified on Thursday, and documents released by the CIA were blacked out.
The CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) have a foreign mission and are generally barred from investigating Americans or US businesses. But the spy agencies’ sprawling collection of foreign communications often snares Americans’ messages and data incidentally.
The senators’ disclosure triggered fresh concerns about privacy protections. Patrick Toomey, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “These reports raise serious questions about the kinds of information the CIA is vacuuming up in bulk and how the agency exploits that information to spy on Americans.
“The CIA conducts these sweeping surveillance activities without any court approval, and with few, if any, safeguards imposed by Congress.”
Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who blew the whistle on the mass surveillance of Americans’ telephone records, wrote on Twitter: “You are about to witness an enormous political debate in which the spy agencies and their apologists on TV tell you this is normal and OK and the CIA doesn’t know how many Americans are in the database or even how they got there anyway. But it is not ok.”
And Justin Amash, a former Republican congressman, tweeted: “Rogue agencies like the NSA, FBI, and CIA are a more serious threat to liberty in America than the enemies they claim to protect us from.”
There have long been concerns about what information the intelligence community collects domestically, driven in part by previous violations of Americans’ civil liberties. The FBI secretly recorded the conversations of Martin Luther King; the CIA investigated whether the anti-Vietnam war movement had links to foreign countries.
On Thursday the CIA released a series of redacted recommendations about the program issued by an oversight panel known as the privacy and civil liberties oversight board. According to the document, a pop-up box warns CIA analysts using the program that seeking any information about US citizens or others covered by privacy laws requires a foreign intelligence purpose.
Additional documents released by the CIA revealed limited details about a program to collect financial data against the Islamic State terrorist group. That program also has incidentally snared some records held by Americans.
Kristi Scott, the agency’s privacy and civil liberties officer, said in a statement: “CIA recognizes and takes very seriously our obligation to respect the privacy and civil liberties of US persons in the conduct of our vital national security mission. CIA is committed to transparency consistent with our obligation to protect intelligence sources and methods.”
Intelligence agencies are required to take steps to protect US information, including redacting the names of any Americans from reports unless they are deemed relevant to an investigation. The process of removing redactions is known as “unmasking.”
Wyden and Heinrich have previously pushed for more transparency. Nearly a decade ago, a question Wyden posed to America’s spy chief presaged Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s mass surveillance programs.
In 2013 Wyden asked then-national intelligence director James Clapper if the NSA collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper initially responded, “No.” He later said, “Not wittingly.”
Later that year Snowden revealed the NSA’s access to bulk data through US internet companies and hundreds of millions of call records from telecommunications providers. Reports in the Guardian and Washington Post generated worldwide controversy and new legislation in Congress.
Clapper would later apologise in a letter to the Senate intelligence committee, admitting that his response to Wyden was “clearly erroneous”.