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The CIA Collects Data in Bulk, Just Like the NSA

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo is displayed in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008. AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The revelations about the NSA's spying keep getting worse, and now the scandal is spreading to another agency. Though it doesn't appear the new information has any direct link to Edward Snowden, several anonymous officials say the CIA is building a huge database of international money transfers by scooping up financial information in bulk. From the few details known about the program, it seems very similar to the government's phone- and data-collection efforts. Like various NSA programs, the CIA's data collection is authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act and overseen by the FISA Court. Even the CIA's attempt to downplay the report sounds familiar. "The CIA protects the nation and upholds the privacy rights of Americans by ensuring that its intelligence collection activities are focused on acquiring foreign intelligence and counterintelligence in accordance with U.S. laws," said CIA spokesman Dean Boyd.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the program was inspired by the 9/11 hijackers' ability to transfer about $300,000 without arousing suspicion. It collects information from U.S. money-transfer companies (Western Union was the only participant named specifically), which can include personal information like Social Security numbers. Officials said the CIA is not allowed to target Americans or collect data on purely domestic transfers. However, transfers to and from the U.S., as well as foreign transactions, are scooped up. There are reportedly procedures in place to protect American's privacy once the data makes its way into the CIA's database, such as prohibitions on which analysts can conduct searches, what terms they can use, and how long the CIA can store the data.

It appears the CIA isn't the only agency running an NSA-like surveillance program. "The intelligence community collects bulk data in a number of different ways under multiple authorities," one intelligence official told the New York Times. As the paper notes, General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, admitted as much in a "little-noticed exchange" during a Senate hearing in October. When asked by Senator Mazie Hirono, "So what are all of the programs run by the N.S.A. or other federal agencies" that allow¬†warrantless wiretapping of phone calls and e-mails under the Patriot Act, Alexander described the phone surveillance program, saying "none of that is hid from you." Moments later, he clarified that he was only talking about the NSA, adding, "You know, that’s of course a global thing that others use as well, but for ours, it’s just that way." How could they be any more transparent?

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Photo: SAUL LOEB/2008 AFP