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Senators say CIA has been gathering data on Americans in secret program

The agency says the allegations are false and that it respects peoples’ personal information

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Photo (c) Matt Anderson Photography - Getty Images
Two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) -- are asking for more transparency about an allegedly immense surveillance effort conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Wyden and Heinrich want to know what kind of records the CIA collected about American citizens and the legal framework for the collection. They originally requested the declassification of a report by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board on a CIA bulk collection program last April, but the letter was not made public until Thursday.

The senators say “the CIA has secretly conducted its own bulk program,” authorized under Executive Order 12333, rather than the laws passed by Congress.

The letter notes that the program was “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] (FISA) collection.” 

“These documents demonstrate 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,” said Senators Wyden and Heinrich. “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. … The public deserves to know more about the collection of this information.”

CIA says it takes privacy seriously

The CIA has been down this road before. In 2017, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) warned the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the CIA Director must not "turn the enormous surveillance powers of the agency against the American people." It noted that the CIA has "a long history of unlawful surveillance" and pointed to a Freedom of Information Act case pursued by EPIC which revealed that the CIA spied on staff members of the U.S. Senate.

This time around, the CIA is getting out in front of Wyden and Heinrich’s claims by firmly disagreeing with the senators’ interpretation of the situation. Kristi Scott, the agency’s privacy and civil liberties officer, said the CIA takes its responsibility to safeguard the privacy and personal liberties of Americans seriously.

“CIA is committed to transparency consistent with our obligation to protect intelligence sources and methods,” Scott stated.

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