Is CIA Spying Domestically by Hacking Americans’ Computers?

In addition to further details about CIA’s quashed review showing torture didn’t work and a commitment from James Clapper he would tell the American people if any of them had been back door searched, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall (along with Martin Heinrich) got one more curious set of details into the record at today’s Threat Hearing.

First, Wyden asked (43;04) John Brennan whether the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act applied to the CIA.

Wyden: Does the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act apply to the CIA?

Brennan: I would have to look into what that act actually calls for and its applicability to CIA’s authorities. I’ll be happy to get back to you, Senator, on that.

Wyden: How long would that take?

Brennan: I’ll be happy to get back to you as soon as possible but certainly no longer than–

Wyden: A week?

Brennan: I think that I could get that back to you, yes.

Minutes later, Mark Udall raised EO 12333’s limits on CIA’s spying domestically (48:30).

Udall: I want to be able to reassure the American people that the CIA and the Director understand the limits of its authorities. We are all aware of Executive Order 12333. That order prohibits the CIA from engaging in domestic spying and searches of US citizens within our borders. Can you assure the Committee that the CIA does not conduct such domestic spying and searches?

Brennan: I can assure the Committee that the CIA follows the letter and spirit of the law in terms of what CIA’s authorities are, in terms of its responsibilities to collect intelligence that will keep this country safe. Yes Senator, I do.

Now, it’s not certain these two questions are linked. Though obviously, hacking computers is an easy way to spy on people (as the NSA knows well).

Of course, the logic of the memo authorizing the Anwar al-Awlaki killing says that, so long as CIA has a presidential finding, even laws protecting American citizens cannot limit the CIA. And we learned 6 years ago that the Executive had secretly altered the text of EO 12333 without actually changing it, a practice John Yoo rubber stamped.

So, particularly given Brennan’s snitty answer about protecting this country, I’d assume it’s a safe bet that the CIA is spying domestically, and I’d posit that they may be hacking computers to do so.

Oh good. NSA was getting bored being the only Agency exposed for hacking.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

9 replies
  1. joanneleon says:

    9/11 changed everything, erased all boundaries. What 9/11 didn’t change, the internet did.

    Next I’d like to know if CIA is conducting psyops and propaganda domestically.

    Anyway, I’d love to know what’s driving the questions from Wyden and Udall. Something from the PCLOB review? Something from some Snowden files journalists? Something they knew before and just chose to zero in on now?

  2. eblandra says:

    “I’d assume it’s a safe bet that the CIA is spying domestically, and I’d posit that they may be hacking computers to do so.

    Oh good. NSA was getting bored being the only Agency exposed for hacking.”

    As you rightly noted, “it’s a safe bet” but, from my perch in the cage, it goes well beyond hacking.

    (Thanks for emptywheel oasis. I rarely comment, but I’m a regular reader. )

  3. emptywheel says:

    @bus: In Brennan’s confirmation hearing he answered a question abt the NYPD’s spying program (which he had an undisclosed but almost certainly significant role in setting up) by talking about CIA”s great ties to JTTFs.

    So, yeah.

  4. Evangelista says:

    From a source that looks for such things:
    “There was, in the 1990s, an “addition” for Unix and Linux computer operating systems, incorporated into the Athena Project’s X-Window System, called “freedesktop”. It was, and still is, designated a “bookmark” system. What it did and does is record user file call-ups, noting the file locations on the computer in a file belonging to, and available via sharing to: “http://www.freedesktop.org/standards/desktop-bookmarks”. The file is, effectively, a metadata collection and storage program. From the 1990s, before terabyte level storage capacities, the program stores the computer user’s metadata on his or her own computer, what he reads, what she stores, in a file accessible by the file-owner site. In the 1990s, when there was less focus on surreptitious access into computers, the freedesktop organization was identified to, if not as, a CIA “security operation”, passive, not accessed, or to be accessed, unless, and until, “probable cause” might be found, or cooked up, for a “need to know”. The freedesktop program appears to be entirely independent from, and in no way used by, any bookmark-file-locating system used by the X-window or Unix-Linux operating system. It appears to be only there in case the CIA, or another acronymic “needs” to know what a user has viewed and reviewed, and where, on her or his personal computer.”

  5. niall says:

    “…Executive Order 12333…”

    “…the CIA follows the letter and spirit of the law…”

    Non-sequitur? Are executive orders referred to as “law”?

  6. timbo says:

    @niall: Yeah, I noticed that too. The President is not the maker of laws. His orders may have ‘the force of law’…which is technically very, very different then the formulating and writing of Constitutionally recognized laws—only the Congress shall pass laws…

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