(NEW YORK) MintPress – It has not been a very good new year so far for the CIA. Shortly after Congress was sworn in on Jan. 3, lawmakers accused the agency of misleading the makers of the Osama bin Laden raid film “Zero Dark Thirty” by allegedly telling them that harsh interrogation methods helped track him down.
In a letter to the CIA released on Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the head of the Intelligence Committee, and others asked acting director Michael Morell to share documents showing what the filmmakers were told.
At the same time, the agency is facing a lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) for withholding information about its cooperation on domestic spying as part of the NYPD’s counter-terrorism surveillance program. The CIA is prohibited from spying on its own citizens.
EPIC filed the suit at the end of December, seeking a report by the CIA’s inspector general that examined the legality of spying on American soil. It filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in March 2012, but Langley failed to respond.
“We filed the request because we feel it’s important for the public to know the domestic surveillance the CIA is involved in because it’s not supposed to be conducting any domestic surveillance,” Ginger McCall, director of EPIC’s Open Government Program, explains to MintPress.
“What we saw with the NYPD is the department and the CIA were targeting for surveillance people of the Muslim faith or Arab descent.”
Associated Press expose
The CIA’s spy activity at home came to light in 2011 in a series of investigative reports by the Associated Press (AP). The news agency found that the NYPD’s activities included photographing members of the American Muslim community as they entered mosques, infiltrating Muslim student groups and monitoring Muslim stores and businesses.
According to the AP, the “police subjected entire neighborhoods to surveillance and scrutiny, often because of the ethnicity of the residents, not because of any accusations of crime.”
At a March 2011 hearing, Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress he was disturbed by what he had read about the NYPD conducting surveillance of mosques and Islamic student organizations in New Jersey, which is outside of its jurisdiction.
“There are a lot of civil liberties problems with that,” says McCall.
The AP also reported that “many of these operations were built with help from the CIA, which … was instrumental in transforming the NYPD’s intelligence unit after 9/11.”
The New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly later confirmed that the CIA had collaborated with the NYPD and that an officer from the agency worked out of the department’s headquarters.
CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood also acknowledged that the agency had a working relationship with the NYPD.
In December 2011, the AP reported on an investigation by the CIA inspector general (IG) regarding the agency’s collaboration with the NYPD.
CIA spokesman Preston Golson confirmed the existence of the investigation and stated that the agency’s IG had concluded that no laws were broken and there was “no evidence that any part of the agency’s support to the NYPD constituted domestic spying.”
According to USA Today, “The revelations troubled some members of Congress and even prompted the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, to remark that it did not look good for the CIA to be involved in any city police department.”
It continued, “Thirty-four lawmakers have asked for the Justice Department to investigate but so far that request has gone nowhere.”
“We want the public to have an informed debate and discussion on CIA activities,” says EPIC’s McCall. “We have to see the source material. Just hearing it from the agency isn’t compelling.”
Far reaching net
EPIC has also done a lot of work on so-called dragnet surveillance and secret databases that collect information on innocent civilians, and has previously opposed operations that rely on race, ethnicity and religion.
These include the Department of Homeland Security’s Automated Targeting System, which creates “risk-based” profiles of individuals traveling to, from and throughout the United States, and Suspicious Activity Reporting, an effort led by the Department of Justice and defined as “official documentation of observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity.”
“People are often targeted on race or political viewpoint or ethnicity or religion. The surveillance pulls in lots of information in databases where the average person has no access,” asserts McCall.
“This is problematic. There are often inaccuracies. And they can cause practical, real life problems with obtaining employment and government clearances.”
McCall is set to appear in court on Monday to serve process, and the CIA then has 30 days to answer. After that, the court will ask both sides to set a schedule for briefing and disclosure.
“Suing them is risky because there are certain exceptions under FOIA. But there are also exceptions to the exceptions with regard to Inspector General reports,” explains McCall. “Ultimately, the judge will make a decision.”
And if EPIC wins? “We are going to take the document to the American public.”