One of the most shocking revelations of the Edward Snowden leaks was that the United States government was engaging in routine interception of the phone data of Americans via the National Security Agency (NSA). New insight into a domestic data collection program run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) indicates even more mass surveillance may have taken place, and some senators are demanding answers.
The “Deep Dive” studies, reports on a series of intelligence collection efforts that have been in action since the 1980s, provide examples of the CIA gathering up domestic communications outside of the legal framework governing these sorts of operations. A bipartisan effort led by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Martin Heinrich (R-NM) is seeking further declassification of records of the studies and the associated programs in the name of transparency for the public.
CIA data collection may have exceeded legal authority
Though the programs they examine have been in operation for many years, public awareness of the “Deep Dive” data collection studies has only come due to the efforts of Wyden and Heinrich to get related documents declassified. Though information available to the general public is very limited at this point, there is reportedly enough to raise concerns about warrantless mass surveillance of the domestic population.
The US intelligence agencies are not supposed to spy on American citizens, and any surveillance must be conducted by law enforcement agencies working with a court-issued warrant. The CIA programs appear to have circumvented these laws via use of Executive Order 12333, a data collection order pertaining to intelligence agencies issued by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s.
The order immediately expanded the data collection powers of the intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA. It opened up warrantless collection of “incidentally obtained” information acquired as part of other lawful investigations, anything that might ” … indicate involvement in activities that may violate federal, state, local or foreign laws.” It also specifically empowered the CIA to demand cooperation from other government agencies. The order had no formal Congressional guidelines for its use until 2017, but the letter indicates that those guidelines have not yet been implemented.
A letter from Wyden and Heinrich to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns has been partially redacted, but indicates that the full scope of data collection is still not known. The senators expressed a need for the public to know what type and amount of records were accessed and what internal rules the CIA applies for the use, storage and dissemination of the information it gathers in this way. Concerns were also expressed about how much “legacy data” about Americans, information collected prior to 2007, continues to be held by the agency.
Though the concerns are about “incidental” mass surveillance of Americans, the programs described by the Deep Dive studies are reportedly focused on gathering intelligence on foreign targets. The original study, Deep Dive I, looks at foreign intelligence programs that began shortly after Reagan issued the executive order and appear to have been used for a variety of purposes; most recently, these programs were used to surveill potential sources of funding for terrorist group ISIS that might have connections to people residing in America.
The details of Deep Dive I have been much less heavily redacted than its follow-up study, Deep Dive II. This is the one that is the primary source of alarm for the senators. Very little information is available about it, but a former CIA staff member interviewed by The Hill said that “thousands to tens of thousands” of requests to identify Americans were made annually via the sources described in the study. The staff member said that it was “really tough to believe” that thousands of Americans were involved in suspected financing of foreign terrorist organizations each year.
Extent of data gathering still unclear, but pieces of evidence raise concerns about mass surveillance
Another anonymous intelligence official told the New York Times that the Deep Dive II report focuses on repository and analysis tools for storing and querying data after its collection, tools that the Senate Intelligence Committee may not have previously been aware of.
The Snowden revelations of 2013 eventually led to Congress banning bulk collection of telecommunications metadata in 2015, but the senators allege that the CIA continued its own mass surveillance bulk collection program after that in secret. The program was apparently hidden from Congress and has never had any kind of oversight from any government branch. CIA privacy and civil liberties officer Kristi Scott responded with a statement claiming that the agency operates within the law and takes citizen rights seriously, but notably not denying that some kind of mass surveillance or bulk data collection happened.
The Deep Dive reports are part of a probe by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that lasted nearly eight years, with the rest of the government (including the Senate Intelligence Committee) shut out of the process until the final reports were delivered to Congress last month. The reports remain classified, something that the senators hope to change in the name of shoring up public faith in the intelligence agencies. The ACLU has used the opportunity to call for a legislative end to all mass surveillance and bulk data collection programs.
Some privacy advocates are calling for an immediate fix in the form of a requirement that a specialized warrant be obtained before any Executive Order 12333 data collection is done, a move that would make mass surveillance much more difficult to legally justify.