At Wednesday's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, titled "Global Security Threats," Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) hinted that CIA agents might be engaging in abusive cyber operations against Americans. And CIA Director John Brennan did little to dispel the notion.
At the hearing, Wyden asked Brennan point-blank whether CIA activities are covered by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which prohibits hacking people's computers. Brennan shrugged off the question, saying that he wasn't familiar enough with the law to answer. Udall followed up by demanding that Brennan assure the committee that the "CIA does not conduct domestic spying and searches in violation of Executive Order 12333," which "prohibits the CIA from engaging in domestic spying and searches of U.S. citizens within our borders." Brennan said only that "the CIA follows the letter and spirit of the law … in terms of its responsibilities to collect intelligence that will keep this country safe."
If experience has taught us anything, it's that the interesting part of all of this may lie more in the questions than in their answers. Wyden and Udall's line of questioning recalls a now-famous Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last March. In that hearing, Wyden pointedly asked Director of National Intelligence Director James Clapper whether the NSA was collecting information on millions of Americans. Clapper responded with one word: "No." We learned how untrue that was when the first Snowden document was published on June 5, exposing the NSA's call-records program, which collects the metadata of virtually every call placed by every American.
This would not be the first time that the CIA has violated Americans' rights. In the 1950s, the CIA opened hundreds of thousands of Americans' letters, and in the 60s and 70s, its covert Domestic Operations Division engaged in widespread surveillance and infiltration of domestic civil rights and anti-war groups, through Operation CHAOS, Project RESISTANCE, and Project MERRIMAC.
Right now, we don't know whether the CIA is engaging in cyber-ops against Americans. But we do now know that the NSA's spy shenanigans range from sucking up massive amounts of internet traffic through upstream and downstream collection programs, undermining online security and encryption standards, infiltrating online gaming realms, and even scooping up detailed user information sent over smartphone apps. If Senators Wyden and Udall are sounding another warning call about another government agency running afoul of the law without regard to our privacy – we should be listening.