The CIA isn’t supposed to be spying on Americans. But a major new disclosure suggests that the spy agency, which has a long history of stretching well past its legal authorities on American soil and off, is at it once again.
The disclosure came late Thursday from Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, both members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who are privy to classified information. They warned ominously about the existence of a secret bulk collection program that the CIA has operated “outside the statutory framework that Congress and the public believe govern this collection,” and without oversight by the courts or Congress.
The secret program appears to be related to bulk data swept up by the CIA in terrorism operations, including information on an unknown number of Americans, according to a heavily blacked-out report from a CIA oversight board that was declassified at the urging of the two senators. The program still seems to be in operation. But beyond that, we’re left with far more questions than answers about the secret program – an information vacuum that demands quick action by Congress to hold public hearings about what the CIA is and isn’t doing.
Wyden, in particular, has a track record that establishes his bona fides on surveillance issues like this.
Largely unchecked surveillance powers
Prior to public disclosures in 2013 by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the remarkably broad scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations, Wyden had hinted for years – in maddeningly cryptic but persistent ways – that Americans would be alarmed to learn what the government was really doing.
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Only when Snowden went public did we learn what Wyden was hinting at – NSA bulk-surveillance operations that, among other things, required phone companies through secret court orders to turn over virtually their entire record of call logs in the name of national security. That was happening even after legal restrictions were put in place over the prior disclosure eight years earlier of a secret NSA program to conduct wiretapping operations without court orders, which produced a huge public outcry in its own right.
We may be on the verge of another public reckoning over the government’s vast and largely unchecked surveillance powers. And we’ve seen the previews for this movie before, whether it was the CIA’s surveillance of anti-Vietnam War protesters in the 1960s and other programs investigated by the Church Committee, or more recent vintage surveillance operations.
From the limited amount we knew about the latest CIA program, it could be related to a controversial secret operation started by the CIA and the Treasury Department after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to sift through vast troves of international banking transfers in search of possible terrorist financing. That program, first revealed publicly in 2006, produced howls from civil liberties advocates within the European Union and led to an international treaty governing and limiting such surveillance, but related financial tracking programs have continued for years with few checks or oversight in place.
The CIA, under its original charter in 1947 and executive orders since then, is generally prohibited from spying on Americans, with the FBI given legal authority for conducting virtually all intelligence operations on U.S. soil. But spymasters at Langley, Virginia, have found ways time and again to stretch and break through those limitations under the guise of national security. Too often, terrorism and national security have been used by the CIA and other intelligence agencies as a pretext for trampling on Americans’ civil liberties.
So many unanswered questions
With so much information about this latest revelation still blacked out, we don’t know how far the CIA mmight have gone this time in pushing those boundaries. What type of information was the CIA collecting, and how many Americans were affected? What role did private companies play? What did CIA analysts and operatives do with the troves of information they swept up, and what controls were in place to prevent abuses?
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Those are all questions that the CIA should have to answer. As Wyden and Heinrich themselves said in a newly declassified letter that they sent to the CIA last year, these are matters that “the public deserves to know.”
You don’t have to be a civil libertarian to hear alarm bells going off. Given the long history of abuses, the idea that the CIA might be vaccuming up reams of sensitive information involving Americans – and keeping it secret behind layers of classified documentation – should concern just about anyone.
Eric Lichtblau, a Pulitzer-winning journalist and author who has written extensively on surveillance and national security issues, is author of “Return To The Reich: A Holocaust Refugee’s Secret Mission to Defeat the Nazis.” Follow him on Twitter: @EricLichtblau