New Report Highlights an Old Problem—the CIA Is Still Snooping on Americans

In a program separate from the ones disclosed by Edward Snowden, we see more mass secret domestic data collection.


Sen. Ron Wyden (D–Ore.), whose oversight of domestic surveillance ultimately led to Edward Snowden's whistleblowing, is alerting citizens that the CIA has been engaged in bulk collection of our private records, much like the National Security Agency (NSA).

Wyden and Sen. Martin Heinrich, (D–N.M.), both members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, requested the declassification of a 2021 report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB). The report, in heavily redacted form, was released on Thursday and reveals that the CIA had its own bulk data collection outside the review of Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court.

This entire program is completely separate from the NSA surveillance that Snowden exposed back in 2013. Then, the NSA contended that Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act authorized the mass collection of Americans' phone and internet metadata to gather information about potential terrorists. It sought (and received) blanket permission from the FISA Court. In 2015, after Snowden's whistleblowing, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which banned the government from collecting the data in bulk and set tighter rules for access.

This CIA surveillance is governed by Executive Order 12333, which was first issued in 1981, and is not under the purview of the FISA Court. Nevertheless, there are supposed to be precautions to ensure that the CIA is not secretly reviewing private data sent by Americans domestically. The PCLOB report explains that as part of its financial intelligence gathering on the operations of the Islamic State, CIA employees were able to collect (intentionally or not) significant amounts of data from domestic communications.

And so while this program is separate from what the NSA was doing, it had the same big flaw. While pursuing information on terrorists—what the CIA is supposed to be doing—the agency was also collecting and storing mass amounts of our private data without any warrants or any oversight outside the agency itself.

What sorts of records the CIA has collected has not been declassified, but given the comparisons and the time frame, it's easy to imagine that these are probably telephone and internet records. Wyden and Heinrich are calling for the CIA to provide details on what kind of records were collected and what legal framework they used to justify the collection.

"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," Wyden and Heinrich noted in a joint statement. "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 CIA, of course, has an extremely long history of surveilling Americans for political purposes. The Church Committee was established in 1975 to investigate allegations of domestic surveillance by the CIA, FBI, and other federal agencies. Its findings were, in part, what led to the founding of the FISA Court in 1978 to make sure that our privacy rights as Americans weren't violated by our own government.