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CIA is collecting trove of data from mass spying on Americans, US Senators say

The CIA seal at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. (Olivier Douliery/Pool/Sipa USA/TNS)
February 11, 2022

The Central Intelligence Agency has been keeping an undisclosed repository of information, including troves of data on U.S. citizens, according to Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) this week.

While neither the CIA nor the senators could describe the precise type and scope of data being collected on U.S. citizens, Wyden and Heinrich alleged the data trove includes the type of data collection on Americans not authorized by Congress.

Wyden and Heinrich sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director Bill Burns in April 2021 requesting the CIA’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) declassify a report about the program. The senators, who are both members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced their letter had been declassified on Thursday along with some partially redacted CIA documents.

Wyden and Heinrich noted that concerns in recent years about U.S. intelligence spying on Americans have focused on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), but said the CIA has its own methods for collecting data from Americans. Rather than relying on FISA, a law passed by Congress, the senators said the CIA’s bulk data collection is authorized through Executive Order 12333, which President Ronald Reagan authorized in 1981.

In their April 2021 letter, the senators state, “It is critical that Congress not legislate without awareness of a [redacted] CIA program, and that the American public not be misled into believing that the reforms in any reauthorization legislation fully cover the [intelligence community’s] collection of their records.”

On Thursday the senators said the CIA program runs “entirely outside the statutory framework that Congress and the public believe govern this collection” and has none of the judicial, congressional or even executive branch oversight that comes with FISA.

“FISA gets all the attention because of the periodic congressional reauthorizations and the release of DOJ, ODNI and FISA Court documents,” Wyden and Heinrich said, “But what 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. 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.”

Included in the redacted documents the CIA released was a set of recommendations from PCLOB about how to improve the foreign intelligence collection programs “involving known or presumed U.S. person information.” The document states that a pop-up box appears to remind analysts that the purpose of their database searches in foreign intelligence collection but “analysts are not required to memorialize the justification for their queries” and as a result, “auditing or reviewing U.S. Person (USP) queries is likely to be challenging and time-consuming.”

The PCLOB recommendation says “it is appropriate to require analysts to provide a written justification for USP queries.”

“CIA 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,” Kristi Scott, the CIA’s privacy and civil liberties officer, said in a statement provided to CBS. “CIA is committed to transparency consistent with our obligation to protect intelligence sources and methods.”

In their joint statement, Wyden and Heinrich said they appreciated the PCLOB recommendations, but said the public still “deserves to know more about the collection of this information.”