More About Intelligence Agencies (CIA/DNI) Spying

January 18, 2013

Central Intelligence Agency. Because of the excessive secrecy surrounding CIA operations, little is known about its domestic activities. In its 1947 charter, the CIA was prohibited from spying against Americans, in part because President Truman was afraid that the agency would engage in political abuse. But the law didn't stop the CIA from spying on Americans. During the 1960s, in clear violation of its statutory mission to co-ordinate foreign intelligence operations only, the CIA ventured into the domestic spying business through "Operation Chaos," in which it spied on as many as 7,000 Americans involved in the peace movement.

Unfortunately, the exposure of intelligence failings before the 9/11 attacks caused policy makers to promote "information sharing" among intelligence and law enforcement agencies as a cure-all, creating the likelihood that the CIA would increasingly operate domestically. Today we know that the CIA is a participant in FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which engage in both foreign and domestic terrorism investigations. And the USA Patriot Act eased restrictions on the sharing of information the FBI collects in grand jury investigations and law enforcement wiretaps with the CIA. An ACLU lawsuit revealed that the CIA has also used National Security Letters to demand Americans' personal financial records without prior court approval. The CIA has acknowledged using National Security Letters "on a limited basis" to obtain financial information from U.S. companies. The history of the CIA's abuse of power and the continuing lack of public accountability over CIA operations make such revelations concerning to civil liberties advocates. The CIA’s involvement in the NYPD intelligence activities targeting innocent Muslim communities in the Northeast reveal the CIA is once again treating Americans as suspected enemies.

Director of National Intelligence. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), a new agency created in 2004 and tasked with coordinating, tasking and overseeing intelligence operations across the Intelligence Community, now has broad access to information collected domestically by the FBI and DHS. And the DNI's Information Sharing Environment (ISE) has become a platform for what may become the largest domestic intelligence collection ever developed: the “suspicious activity reporting” (SAR) program. SAR leverages collection efforts by federal agencies like the FBI and DHS, the U.S. military, and state and local law enforcement. The SAR program is expanding to encourage the public to report the suspicious activities of their neighbors, reminiscent of the TIPS program promoted by former Attorney General John Ashcroft but blocked by Congress in 2002.

National Counterterrorism Center. The National Counterterrorism Center is yet another component of the DNI that increasingly engages in collecting intelligence.  Under its original guidelines, written in 2008, the NCTC was barred from collecting information about ordinary Americans unless the person was a terror suspect or part of an actual investigation. When the NCTC gobbled up huge data sets it had to search for and identify any innocent US person information inadvertently collected, and discard it within 180 days. This crucial check meant that NCTC was dissuaded from collecting large databases filled with information on innocent Americans, because the data had to then be carefully screened.  But in 2012, the Obama administration amended the NCTC guidelines to eliminate this check, allowing NCTC to collect and “continually assess” information on innocent Americans for up to five years.

Once information is acquired, the new guidelines authorize broad new search powers. As long NCTC says its search is aimed at identifying terrorism information, it may conduct queries that involve non-terrorism data points and pattern-based searches and analysis (data mining), a technique which has been thoroughly discredited as a useful tool for identifying terrorists.  As far back as 2008, the National Academy of Sciences found that data mining for terrorism was scientifically “not feasible” as a methodology, and likely to have significant negative impacts on privacy and civil liberties.  The guidelines allow the NCTC to broadly share this “non-terrorism” information on US persons with “a federal, state, local, tribal, or foreign or international entity, or to an individual or entity not part of a government” – literally anyone, even for non-terrorism related purposes.  The ACLU has filed Freedom of Information Act requests to get further information about this broad new authority the NCTC claims.

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