US Intelligence Chiefs Miss Deadline on How They Define Spying

The US intelligence community has missed a congressional deadline to explain how it sets about spying, prompting concerns from civil liberties advocates and on Capitol Hill.

(Bloomberg) — The US intelligence community has missed a congressional deadline to explain how it sets about spying, prompting concerns from civil liberties advocates and on Capitol Hill.

A particular issue, they said, is how US intelligence agencies are using “open-source” data, including information sold by data brokers.

By Saturday, the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, and the Pentagon’s chief of intelligence and security, Ronald Moultrie, were supposed to “develop and publish definitions” to 23 key terms that shape how the US conducts spying and the roles of each agency that engages in espionage. 

A spokesperson for Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told Bloomberg News that the panel has yet to receive those definitions, which are required under the 2022 Consolidated Appropriations Act. The terms include “signals intelligence” and “open-source intelligence.” 

Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said the definitions “have major implications for Americans’ privacy and civil liberties,” adding that they can determine the kinds of sensitive information that agencies like the Department of Homeland Security are authorized to collect, compile and disseminate about Americans. 

“Both Congress and the public should know how the intelligence agencies are drawing these critical lines,” he said, referring to Sept. 30 as “an important deadline.”

The definition of “open-source intelligence” is particularly pressing, said Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel for the advocacy group Demand Progress, given that it can include commercial information. He argues that the government has yet to provide sufficient disclosures about its purchases of information from data brokers, who can sell geolocation and other data gleaned from internet browsing and mobile phone use. 

“This is a practice that should have been debated publicly before it was in operation and missing a deadline is simply inadequate,” he said. 

Two Senate aides, neither of whom wanted to be named because of the sensitivities of the matter, said US intelligence agencies have missed congressional deadlines in the past but disagreed on how much it matters in this case.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said “how the government defines ‘open-source intelligence’ gets at the heart of the problem.” 

“This isn’t just about legalistic definitions,” Wyden said in a statement to Bloomberg. “It’s about letting Americans know whether highly personal information about them that the government has purchased” is handled the same way as public information published by the media. Wyden said he has been asking the Office of Director of National Intelligence to be transparent with the American public “for years.”  

In a Feb 2019 letter reviewed by Bloomberg, Wyden pressed the intelligence community to standardize a definition of “signals intelligence activities.” He argued in his letter to Dan Coats, then-director of national intelligence, that without a public definition “the American people will not know the extent to which those policies, guidelines and procedures actually protect their privacy and Constitutional rights.”

A spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment. The Defense Department didn’t reply to requests for comment. 


–With assistance from Daniel Flatley and Roxana Tiron.

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