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Sen. Ron Wyden

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) speaks during a hearing of the Finance Committee on June 17, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images)

'This Invasion of Our Privacy Must Stop,' Says ACLU After CIA Domestic Spying Revelations

New revelations, said the civil liberties group, "raise serious questions about what information of ours the CIA is vacuuming up in bulk and how the agency exploits that information to spy on Americans."

Jon Queally

The ACLU was among those expressing grave concern Thursday night after a pair of Democrats in the U.S. Senate revealed troubling evidence that the CIA has conducted bulk surveillance of the American people without their knowledge and with little oversight.

"As disturbing as the CIA's bulk surveillance of financial transactions is, the other bulk surveillance program is so secretive the CIA won't even tell the public what kind of information it is sweeping up."

Following release of a letter about the spy agency's bulk collection program declassified at the behest of Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), the ACLU said there should be serious concern that "the CIA has been secretly conducting massive surveillance programs that capture Americans' private information."

The previously undisclosed domestic spying by the CIA, added the group, "is done without any court approval, and with few, if any, safeguards imposed by Congress to protect our civil liberties."

According to a statement put out by Wyden and Heinrich, the two senators "requested the declassification of a report by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board [PCLOB] on a CIA bulk collection program, in a letter sent April 13, 2021. The letter, which was declassified and made public [Thursday] reveals that 'the CIA has secretly conducted its own bulk program,' authorized under Executive Order 12333, rather than the laws passed by Congress."

What the newly-declassified documents demonstrate, said Wyden and Heinrich, "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," referring to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which governs many aspects of how U.S. intelligence agencies deploy their surveillance capabilities.

"In particular," the lawmakers continued, "these documents reveal serious problems associated with warrantless backdoor searches of Americans, the same issue that has generated bipartisan concern in the FISA context."

Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel with the progressive advocacy group Demand Progress, said the new information was troubling if not surprising.

"Despite years of Congressional and public outcry against warrantless mass surveillance of people in the United States, the CIA has been hiding bulk spying programs, infringing on the rights of literally every American, and completely evading the oversight of Congress and the courts," said Vitka in a statement.

"As disturbing as the CIA's bulk surveillance of financial transactions is, the other bulk surveillance program is so secretive the CIA won't even tell the public what kind of information it is sweeping up," Vitka added. 

While the April 13, 2021 declassified letter addressed to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA director William Burns from Wyden and Heinrich was declassified, key portions remain redacted. And while the senators welcomed the new disclosures, they said much more must be done by the CIA and the PCLOB so that the American people better understand the nature of the surveillance they may be under and that adequate oversight by Congress can occur.

"While we appreciate the release of the ‘Recommendations from PCLOB Staff’ which highlights problems associated with the handling of Americans' information," the lawmakers said, "our letter also stressed that the public deserves to know more about the collection of this information."

Wyden and Heinrich are demanding far more transparency from the CIA, including more detailed disclosures about the kind of records it has collected and the legal framework it uses to justify such surveillance.

"We intend to continue to urge them to achieve the transparency the American people deserve," they said.

The new revelations, said the ACLU, "raise serious questions about what information of ours the CIA is vacuuming up in bulk and how the agency exploits that information to spy on Americans."

"This invasion of our privacy must stop," the group added.


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