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Newly declassified letter warns CIA has conducted 'secret' program that collects 'bulk' data on Americans

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SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The Central Intelligence Agency has used a "secret" program to collect data on American citizens in "bulk," according to a letter that was partially declassified on Thursday.

What are the details?

Two Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee — Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (N.M.) — wrote CIA Director William Burns and National Intelligence Director Avril Haines in April 2021 expressing concern over the apparent unlawful data collection on American citizens.

The letter was released on Thursday with significant redactions.

The data collection is reportedly connected to counterterrorism intelligence, Bloomberg reported, and the program is being operated under Executive Order 12333. That executive order was signed by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

But according to Wyden and Heinrich, the CIA "has secretly conducted its own bulk program" and "has done so 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."

"This basic fact has been kept from the public and from Congress. Until the [Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board] report was delivered last month, the nature and full extent of the CIA's collection was withheld even from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence," the senators added.

Unfortunately, the letter does not indicate, as Bloomberg noted, "how long, exactly, the surveillance had unfolded, how widespread it had been, or what sort of information was collected and from whom."

The CIA also released the PCLOB's report, which was heavily redacted. One of the problems the PCLOB, an internal government watchdog, noted was that when CIA analysts seek information that may be connected to U.S. citizens, "a popup box will appear to remind the analysts that an [foreign intelligence] purpose is required for such a query." However, the problem is that "analysts are not required to memorialize the justification for their queries."

What was the response?

In a joint statement, Wyden and Heinrich called for more transparency from the CIA about what data was collected and under what legal authority the collection happened.

"[W]hat 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," the senators also explained. "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."

Meanwhile, CIA privacy and civil liberties officer Kristi Scott said in a statement the spy agency is committed to respecting privacy and civil liberties.

"CIA recognizes and takes very seriously our obligation to respect the privacy and civil liberties of US persons in the conduct of our vital national security mission, and conducts our activities, including collection activities, in compliance with U.S. law, Executive Order 12333, and our Attorney General guidelines," Scott said. "CIA is committed to transparency consistent with our obligation to protect intelligence sources and methods."

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