A partially redacted letter from Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said the program existed outside the normal bounds of oversight.


Senators allege CIA secretly collecting bulk data about Americans

By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The CIA has a secret, undisclosed data repository that includes information collected about Americans, two Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee said Thursday. While neither the agency nor lawmakers would disclose specifics about the data, the senators alleged the CIA had long hidden details about the program from the public and Congress.

Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico sent a letter to top intelligence officials calling for more details about the program to be declassified. Large parts of the letter, which was sent in April 2021 and declassified Thursday, and documents released by the CIA were blacked out. Wyden and Heinrich said the program operated “outside the statutory framework that Congress and the public believe govern this collection.”

There have long been concerns about what information the intelligence community collects domestically, driven in part by previous violations of Americans’ civil liberties. The CIA and National Security Agency have a foreign mission and are generally barred from investigating Americans or U.S. businesses. But the spy agencies’ sprawling collection of foreign communications often snares Americans’ messages and data incidentally.

Intelligence agencies are required to take steps to protect U.S. information, including redacting the names of any Americans from reports unless they are deemed relevant to an investigation. The process of removing redactions is known as “unmasking.”

“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.”


Privacy and Power: Your digital fingerprint
The CIA released a series of redacted recommendations about the program issued by an oversight panel known as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. According to the document, a pop-up box warns CIA analysts using the program that seeking any information about U.S. citizens or others covered by privacy laws requires a foreign intelligence purpose.

“However, analysts are not required to memorialize the justification for their queries,” the board said.

Both senators have long pushed for more transparency from the intelligence agencies. Nearly a decade ago, a question Wyden posed to the nation’s spy chief presaged critical revelations about the NSA’s mass-surveillance programs.

In 2013, Wyden 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 initially responded, “No.” He later said, “Not wittingly.”

Former systems administrator Edward Snowden later that year revealed the NSA’s access to bulk data through U.S. internet companies and hundreds of millions of call records from telecommunications providers. Those revelations sparked worldwide controversy and new legislation in Congress.

Clapper would later apologize in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee, calling his response to Wyden “clearly erroneous.”

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According to Wyden and Heinrich’s letter, the CIA’s bulk collection program operates outside of laws passed and reformed by Congress, but under the authority of Executive Order 12333, the document that broadly governs intelligence community activity and was first signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

“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,” the senators wrote in their letter. There was a redaction in the letter before “CIA program.”

Additional documents released by the CIA Thursday also revealed limited details about a program to collect financial data against the Islamic State. That program also has incidentally snared some records held by Americans.

Intelligence agencies are subject to guidelines on the handling and destruction of Americans’ data. Those guidelines and laws governing intelligence activity have evolved over time in response to previous revelations about domestic spying.

The FBI spied on the U.S. civil rights movement and secretly recorded the conversations of Dr. Martin Luther King. The CIA, in what was called Operation Chaos, investigated whether the movement opposing the Vietnam War had links to foreign countries.

CIA


“These reports raise serious questions about the kinds of information the CIA is vacuuming up in bulk and how the agency exploits that information to spy on Americans,” Patrick Toomey, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “The CIA conducts these sweeping surveillance activities without any court approval, and with few, if any, safeguards imposed by Congress.”

Ukraine

Ukraine has called for a meeting with Russia and other members of a key European security group over the escalating tensions on its border.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Russia had ignored formal requests to explain the build-up of troops.

He said the next step was requesting a meeting within the next 48 hours for transparency about Russia’s plans.

Russia has denied any plans to invade Ukraine despite the build-up of some 100,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s borders.

Ukrainian soldiers and police have conducted a wide range of exercises in recent days

But with the US saying Moscow could begin with aerial bombardments “at any time” more than a dozen nations have urged their citizens to leave Ukraine.

Ukraine’s ambassador in London, Vadym Prystaiko, has backtracked on comments he made to the BBC in which he said Ukraine was willing to be “flexible” on its ambition to join Nato, which would have been be a major concession to Russia.

But in a subsequent interview he said that Ukraine had a constitutional commitment to join Nato and it depended on the “readiness of Nato itself” whether Ukraine would be admitted.

British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said the UK would support whatever Ukraine decided to do.

Ukraine has made a request via the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) for Russia to explain its build-up of troops. Under the Vienna Document, of which Russia is party to, OSCE members can ask for information on a member’s military activities.

“If Russia is serious when it talks about the indivisibility of security in the OSCE space, it must fulfil its commitment to military transparency in order to de-escalate tensions and enhance security for all,” Mr Kuleba said.

However, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who criticised the “panic” that could spread from such claims, said he had seen no proof that Russia was planning an invasion in the coming days.

In the latest attempt to find a diplomatic solution, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has meetings scheduled with President Zelensky in Kyiv later on Monday and with President Putin in Moscow on Tuesday.

The chancellor, who took over the leadership of Germany from Angela Merkel in December, has warned of severe economic consequences for Russia if it should launch any invasion, echoing statements by other Western nations and members of the Nato military alliance.

But Berlin officials have downplayed any expectation of a breakthrough.

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to hold fresh diplomatic talks across Europe to bring Russia “back from the brink” of war.

In Washington, President Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said an invasion could begin “any day now”.

Mr Sullivan said the US is closely monitoring for a potential “false flag” operation by Moscow as a pretext for a full-scale invasion so it can claim it is responding to Ukrainian aggression.

Russia contends that its build-up of troops along the Ukraine border is its own concern, within its own territory. On Sunday, senior foreign policy official Yuri Ushakov characterised the US warnings of imminent invasion as “hysteria has reached its peak”.