Is the CIA Spying on You?

The phrase “Big Brother is watching you” has turned into such a cliche that we can easily forget the bracing shock that it brought when George Orwell published 1984:

The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

It’s no longer conspiracy-mongering to say that we live in a surveillance state. Cameras are everywhere, and we’re already aware of how much information about ourselves our smartphones transmit.

So is it surprising that new documents have revealed that the CIA is spying on Americans, often without warrants?

Two senators are now asking for “new transparency about bulk surveillance conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency” after declassified documents have come to light.

In April 2021, Sens. Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) requested declassification of a report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board about a bulk collection program that the CIA conducted under Executive Order 12333 rather than as the result of legislation.

Interestingly enough, Executive Order 12333 dates back to the Reagan administration and states that “All reasonable and lawful means must be used to ensure that the United States will receive the best intelligence available.”

However, as Wyden and Heinrich noted in their request for declassification, the CIA surveillance took place “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 from [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] collection.”

The CIA declassified the information that Wyden and Heinrich requested with a preface that reads in part:

All of CIA’s intelligence activities must be properly authorized, and the collection, retention, or dissemination of information considering United States persons may only be conducted pursuant to specific procedures approved by the Director of the CIA and the Attorney General. While the protection of national security requires that many of the CIA’s intelligence activities remain secret, in order to improve public understanding and trust and to allow the public to hold CIA accountable, CIA has released its procedures for protecting Americans’ personal information and has provided an extensive explanation of the authorizations and limitations regarding such information.

In response to the report, Wyden and Heinrich noted that “what 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. In particular, these documents reveal serious problems associated with warrantless backdoor searches of Americans, the same issue that has generated bipartisan concern in the FISA context.”

As a result of what they’ve discovered in the report, Wyden and Heinrichs are calling for an increased level of transparency from the CIA. As much as it pains me to agree with two Democrat senators and the ACLU, they’re right when they say that “This invasion of our privacy must stop.”

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