The CIA has a secret repository of information collected about Americans as part of the agency’s foreign surveillance programs, two Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee alleged on Thursday. The lawmakers said the agency hid from Congress and the public what amounts to “warrantless backdoor searches of Americans.”
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) wrote to CIA Director Bill Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines in April 2021, calling for details about the program to be declassified. The CIA, they claimed, has “secretly conducted its own bulk program … entirely outside the statutory framework that Congress and the public believe govern this collection.” The program does operate under the authority of Executive Order 12333, which has governed intelligence community activity since 1981, the senators said.
The senators’ letter was declassified on Thursday. “It is critical that Congress not legislate without awareness of a … CIA program, and that the American public not be misled into believe that the reforms in any reauthorization legislation fully cover the IC’s collection of their records,” Wyden and Heinrich wrote. Part of the letter was redacted, including a section before “CIA program.”
Neither the senators nor the CIA have provided details on the kind of data collected or from how many individuals it was collected.
The watchdog Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board last year issued reports on whether two CIA programs followed existing laws and policies. The CIA released one of the reports, which related to its handling of terrorist financing data, on Thursday. The second, the agency said, “must remain classified in full to protect sensitive tradecraft methods and operational sources,” according to CNN.
The 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 agency’s privacy and civil liberties officer, said in a statement. “CIA is committed to transparency consistent with our obligation to protect intelligence sources and methods.”
In 2013, former National Security Administration systems analyst Edward Snowden revealed the government’s sweeping collection of Americans’ data through internet and telecommunications providers. Just a few months earlier, Wyden had asked then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper if the NSA collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper said no, at first, then added, “Not willingly.” He later apologized for his “clearly erroneous” response.