We now know so much about the hijinks of the postwar American national security state, we tend to forget that wasn’t always the case. The COINTELPRO and MK-Ultra programs, FBI attempts to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr, disruption of antiwar and other activist groups, a list of dissidents to round up and detain, vast spying on citizens and the press — many of us might be able to rattle off these outrages off the top of our heads now, but were it not for some intrepid reporters and the Church and Pike Committees in the 1970s, the American public would have stayed blissfully unaware any of it had ever even happened.
It’s food for thought ever since we learned last Thursday that the CIA has been carrying out its own bulk surveillance program that crossed over to the domestic front, stretching, if not outright violating, the legal ban on the agency carrying out domestic operations. The revelation came from a April 2021 letter, made public on Thursday, from Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM), calling on the CIA to make “extensive declassifications” about the program, along the lines of earlier declassifications of NSA and FBI spying programs.
While the letter is heavily redacted, it gives us some strands of information. The senators run through the history, entirely blacked out, of Congress’ attempts “to limit and, in some cases, prohibit the warrantless collection of Americans’ records,” and notes that the CIA’s bulk data collection was going on “throughout this period.” This suggests the agency was collecting data on Americans at least as early as May 2014, when the House passed the USA Freedom Act to rein in NSA surveillance, and possibly even earlier when the bill was first introduced in October 2013.
The letter also charges that the program was run “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 with FISA collection.” In other words, the CIA program doesn’t even have the patina of oversight that other mass surveillance programs do, where the court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), meant to act as a watchdog, effectively serves as a rubber stamp that routinely allows all manner of oversteps.
Finally, the letter notes, “this basic fact has been kept from the public and from Congress,” and the “nature and full extent of the CIA’s connection was withheld even from the Senate select committee on intelligence.” Translation: not only was the CIA keeping this dubious program hidden from the public, it was misleading the very elected representatives the public entrusts with keeping an eye on this kind of thing.
We have too little information at this stage to say much more about the program. For its part, the CIA has insisted it kept Congress “fully and currently informed” about the program, which it casts as merely incidental collection of Americans’ data in the course of spying on foreigners. In simple terms, that means that while eavesdropping on or otherwise surveilling a target, the agency happened to collect the data of any American who was communicating with that target, whether via email, phone, or something else.
But the language of Wyden and Heinrich is far less sanguine. The two senators warn that Americans’ privacy concerns “also apply to how the CIA collects and handles information” in this program, and that there are “serious problems associated with warrantless backdoor searches of Americans.”
Sure enough, one of the documents released by the agency in response to the letter, a set of recommendations from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), notes that CIA analysts “are not required to memorialize the justification for their queries” into Americans — write down why they felt the need, and what gave them the right, to look at Americans’ data, in other words. “As a result, auditing or reviewing U.S. Person (USP) queries is likely to be challenging and time-consuming,” the PCLOB notes.
Whose word should we take on this? On one side we have the CIA, which, as former officer John Kiriakou has explained, puts deceit at the core of its operation, with agents “trained to lie all of the time.” On the other, we have Wyden, who is far from an alarmist or bomb-thrower, and if anything, errs on the side of institutionalism. For years, Wyden was tight-lipped about the shocking truth of the NSA’s bulk surveillance, refusing to breach his oath of confidentiality as a member of the Senate intelligence committee, even as the government flouted the law. He refused even to publicly correct then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, when he flagrantly lied under oath about the surveillance.
As that episode reminds us, this particular overreach is only the latest case of spy agencies, and the CIA in particular, acting in a way that’s above the law and contemptuous of oversight. The past two decades alone, we’ve seen the agency torture some folks (a violation of US law), lie to Congress about that torture, then later snoop on Senate staffers compiling a damning report about it, which its director also lied about once it was revealed to the public.
There should be a bipartisan push to, first, fully inform the public about this program, and then rein in both the CIA’s domestic spying and the agency as a whole. This should be a no-brainer for anyone across the political spectrum. Do conservatives really want the agency that spent years feuding with and trying to undermine their favorite president scooping up Americans’ private information with seemingly no oversight? And with Donald Trump having at least a fifty-fifty shot to win in 2024 or later, are liberals really comfortable with him and whomever he picks to head the CIA inheriting this program, especially after what we saw throughout 2020?
We wouldn’t know the full scope of Iraq War atrocities if Chelsea Manning hadn’t leaked documents to Julian Assange. We wouldn’t know about the NSA’s mass data collection if Edward Snowden hadn’t leaked documents to Glenn Greenwald. And we didn’t know about this CIA program until two senators released a letter to the public about it. Just imagine what else we don’t know.