Dem duo's warning of CIA 'warrantless backdoor searches' revives domestic spying debate

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A newly declassified letter from two Democratic senators warning that the CIA has been conducting “warrantless backdoor searches” of Americans’ data is roiling Washington's long-running debate over balancing national security with civil liberties.

In an April letter declassified on Thursday, Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico allege that the CIA “has secretly conducted its own bulk program … outside the statutory framework that Congress and the public believe govern this collection.”

“This basic fact has been kept from the public and from Congress,” wrote Wyden and Heinrich, who serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee and have criticized intelligence community practices in the past — Wyden quite vocally.

Their letter, addressed to CIA Director William Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, is heavily redacted and does not specify the nature of the data collection or the type of information the agency has access to. But it's raising new questions about the intelligence community’s handling of Americans’ data as part of its foreign surveillance efforts, most of which is regulated by Congress, and reviving years-long concerns from privacy advocates who say the U.S. government has consistently violated U.S. citizens' civil liberties.

The senators cited a report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that, according to the lawmakers, shows that the “full extent of the CIA’s collection was withheld even from” the Senate intelligence panel. They demanded a swift and “urgent” declassification of several aspects of the program, including the types of records that were collected and the “nature of the CIA’s relationship with its sources and the legal framework for the collection.”

A congressional source who has viewed the report pushed back on some elements of the senators’ letter, addressing its sensitive allegations candidly on condition of anonymity. This person said that the CIA is not collecting the information on Americans that's at issue; rather, its analysts have access to a repository of information collected by other intelligence agencies.

That database likely includes data that was swept up “incidentally” as part of foreign surveillance operations, the source added, and CIA analysts can search through it as part of their normal investigative work.

“It’s basically one centralized place,” the source said, adding that the Senate intelligence panel was already aware of the collection program.

A spokesperson for Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) declined to comment.

An intelligence official, also addressing the matter on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the Senate committee has known about the program and described it as a “tool to help manage information” gathered by multiple agencies. Guidance from the attorney general governs the CIA's access to information of Americans contained in the database that was collected incidentally, this official said.

“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, and conducts our activities, including collection activities, in compliance with U.S. law, Executive Order 12333, and our Attorney General guidelines,” Kristi Scott, the CIA’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.”

Nonetheless, Wyden and Heinrich raised concerns that CIA data collection is ripe for abuse because it is governed by a decades-old executive order rather than laws passed by Congress, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That law has been the subject of bipartisan concern over the years, with lawmakers crying foul at the incidental collection of Americans’ data.

“[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 said.