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Conservatives Should Demand Answers From the CIA

"The full nature and extent of the CIA’s collection was withheld even from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence."

The CIA is once again on the fritz. In a recently declassified letter to top U.S. intelligence officials, Sens. Ron Wyden (D, Oregon) and Martin Heinrich (D, New Mexico) raise concerns that the CIA may be improperly and/or unlawfully spying on American citizens. The letter, which was originally written in April 2021 and declassified last Thursday, is heavily redacted, leaving the scope of the CIA’s alleged wrongdoing unclear. The senators released a statement last Thursday, doubling down on calls for transparency regarding the CIA’s surveillance methods.

Although lefties and libertarians have an extensive track record of criticizing the federal government’s information gathering practices, many conservatives have long supported such gathering for reasons of national security. Even hawks, however, should be deeply concerned by the contents of Wyden and Heinrich’s letter and should demand answers from the CIA.

Conservatism, rightly understood, recognizes that responsible policymaking requires the weighing of competing interests. Washington surely has the duty to provide for the common defense, but must do so in a manner which preserves the institutions and norms which are foundational to America’s political system. Therefore, those of even the most hawkish persuasion should work for an intelligence apparatus which is consistent with the U.S. Constitution, the rule of law, separation of powers, and principles of democratic accountability.

In their Thursday statement, Wyden and Heinrich allege that the CIA has conducted “warrantless backdoor searches,” a clear violation of Fourth Amendment protections. CIA analysts seeking intelligence on U.S. citizens are apparently “reminded” by their data system that they must have a “Foreign Intelligence” justification for their queries, but are not required to “memorialize” those justifications. In short, agents who don’t actually have a legal justification to spy on Americans can just click through the system—and it is incredibly difficult to hold them accountable. (The nature of the intelligence gained in this manner is yet unclear, which is precisely why more answers are necessary.)

Speaking of accountability, the senators’ letter alleges that the CIA conducts surveillance “without any of the judicial, congressional or even executive branch oversight that comes with FISA collection.” Still worse, Wyden and Heinrich say that the CIA has spied on Americans without the knowledge of “Congress and the public,” and, indeed, that “the full nature and extent of the CIA’s collection was withheld even from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.” This is not Serbia in 1914; our intelligence agencies must be subject to the citizenry and its elected representatives. The only constitutional check on the enormous power of executive agencies is Congress, and the CIA’s current lack of transparency and historical propensity for abuse of power raises the brightest of red flags.

The foundational American principle of separation of powers applies not only to the three branches of the federal government, but also to the component institutions thereof. Most famously, the Senate and House of Representatives have different sets of powers and provide separate—and often conflicting—functions in our legislative process. Therefore, even if we concede to the most hawkish conservatives the necessity of allowing our government to aggressively snoop on Americans (and this writer most certainly does not), the CIA should not be the agency to do so. It is, as an institution, barred from spying on Americans, a guardrail against abuse which should remain in place.

It is worth noting that even from a cynical political perspective, conservatives should be skeptical of poorly regulated intelligence gathering. Investigations and reports have demonstrated that the now-infamous Carter Page FISA application was ill-founded, and was one of many instances in which the FBI skirted protocols to spy on American citizens. The FBI’s efforts against Page were largely responsible for the combination of investigation and hysteria now known as “Russiagate,” which hamstrung the first two years of Donald Trump’s administration and was based on accusations of Trump/Russia collusion which proved to be complete hogwash. The episode vindicated another lesson from the American Founding: If you allow government to exercise arbitrary, unsupervised power, it will inevitably wield it against you or your allies at some point down the road.

The truth is that we do not currently know the scope of the CIA’s misconduct. But that’s the point: Further investigation is imperative. Conservatives may not agree with lefties and libertarians on the proper extent of government intelligence gathering, but should be no less vocal in urging the CIA to come clean. It is a matter of rule of law and responsible governance—bedrock conservative principles. As noted by Sens. Wyden and Heinrich, information around methods of data gathering (such as FISA) has already been declassified and scrutinized. It is time for the CIA to follow suit.

David B. McGarry is a contributor with Young Voices from sunny Los Angeles. He’s a staunch defender of liberty and American institutions. Follow him on Twitter @davidbmcgarry.