Understanding the new CIA mass surveillance scandal


Executive Director

Carol M. Highsmith

There’s a lot going on in the world, so you’ll be forgiven if you missed the disturbing news last week that the CIA is amassing a significant amount of private data on Americans through a secret surveillance program that the agency is running outside any oversight from either Congress or the courts.

In a letter released Feb. 10, Sens. Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich revealed only the vaguest of contours of the program while demanding the director of national intelligence declassify the details, so that Americans can find out what the CIA has been doing under their name. Many of the specifics, including what types of data the CIA has been collecting on Americans, remain hidden behind a wall of secrecy.

Just two weeks after the director of national intelligence admitted the U.S. classification system is so broken that it hinders our democracy, we learn of yet another mass surveillance program affecting Americans’ rights that has been totally hidden from public view.

The New York Times’s Charlie Savage has an excellent rundown of the scandal. These paragraphs get to the crux of the matter:

In 2015, Congress banned bulk collection of telecommunications metadata under the Patriot Act and limited other types of bulk collection by the F.B.I. under laws governing domestic activities like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

Yet “the C.I.A. has secretly conducted its own bulk program” under Executive Order 12333, the senators wrote.

“It 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,” the letter continued. “This basic fact has been kept from the public and from Congress."

Digging deeper, these pieces each explore other important facets of the burgeoning scandal:

  • Longtime national security reporter Spencer Ackerman, who was one of the Guardian’s lead reporters during the Snowden disclosures, wrote about how “the CIA has been stealing your data for years.”
  • Elizabeth Goitein at Brennan Center, who knows more about surveillance law than just about anyone, wrote a really informative article about “how the CIA is acting outside the law to spy on Americans.”
  • Our friends at EFF analyzed many of the aspects of the program we don’t know about, and how outrageous it is that the U.S. government continues to use its classification program to hide potentially illegal programs from any public scrutiny.

We'll have more on this story as it develops.

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