The CIA has been conducting a secret mass surveillance program that affects Americans’ privacy, according to a newly declassified letter (PDF) by US Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). In the letter dated April of 2021, the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee urged the agency to tell the public the kind of records it collected, the amount of American records’ maintained and the nature of the CIA’s relationship with its sources.
The Senators also asked the Director of National Intelligence to declassify the studies conducted by a watchdog called the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), which prompted the letter in the first place. PCLOB did in-depth examinations of two CIA counterterrorism-related programs back in 2015 as part of a larger oversight review of Executive Order 12333, a Reagan-era EO that extends the powers of US intelligence agencies.
According to The Wall Street Journal, surveillance activities conducted under EO 12333 — like the CIA’s bulk program — aren’t subject to the same oversight as those under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The publication also notes that that the CIA isn’t legally allowed to conduct domestic spying, but some Americans’ information get scooped up in certain instances. One example is if they’re communicating with an overseas target via phone or the internet. Intelligence agencies are required to protect any information from the US, as well, such as redacting Americans’ names unless they’re pertinent to the investigation. According to the Senators, PCLOB noted problems with how the CIA handled and searched Americans’ information under the program.
The Senators said the existence of the program was hidden not just to the public, but also to the Congress. An intelligence official told The New York Times, though, the the Intelligence Committee already knew about the data collection. It’s the program’s tools for storying and querying that collected data, which are discussed in PCLOB’s reports, that it may not know the details of.
While both the Senators’ letter and one of PCLOB’s studies have now been released, they’ve both been heavily redacted. It’s impossible to tell, based on the documents that came out, what kind of information was collected and what the nature of the program was. Or is — it’s also unclear whether the program is still ongoing or if the CIA has already ended it. The CIA said in a statement:
“CIA has kept, and continues to keep, the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI) and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) fully and currently apprised of its intelligence programs, to include the activities reviewed by PCLOB. Moreover, all CIA officers have a solemn obligation to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans. CIA will continue to seek opportunities to provide better transparency into the rules and procedures governing our collection authorities to both Congress and the American public.”