Column: What if the CIA is spying on Americans?

James Angleton of the CIA being questioned in 1975 by the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee on intelligence abuses.
James Angleton, the legendary former chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence division, testifies about intelligence abuses before the Senate’s Church Committee in 1975.
(Harvey Georges / Associated Press)

Last week two U.S. senators revealed that the CIA may once again be spying on Americans. But no one paid much attention.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), in a letter demanding further details, said they have identified a previously unknown CIA data repository that includes “bulk” information collected about American citizens. The senators said the agency had been hiding details about the program from the public and Congress, and that the program operates, as they put it, “outside the statutory framework.”

“Outside the statutory framework” is Washingtonese for “against the law.”

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

Hoovering up private data about Americans is a big deal. It’s unacceptable for any number of moral, political and legal reasons, including the fact that the 4th Amendment promises us freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. Our personal information — including private communications — are none of the government’s business unless it has obtained a warrant from a judge based on probable cause.


Nevertheless, the Wyden-Heinrich revelation was buried in the media, presumably because there are few specifics and because the CIA denied any wrongdoing. It’s not even clear what sort of data is allegedly being collected.

Also, Americans are just so exhausted — by scandal fatigue, climate anxiety, the specter of war in Europe, the global pandemic. Who can muster outrage over some secret database in Langley? Especially since we’re now so used to giving up our privacy — to Facebook, Google and everybody else.

As I read the letter, though, I couldn’t help thinking of a different era, when privacy violations still had the capacity to shock, and Congress could still, at times, come together to express bipartisan outrage.

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In the 1970s, a series of intelligence agency abuses were revealed in the wake of the Watergate investigation. The one that came to mind this week involved a program known as HTLINGUAL, under which the CIA opened the private mail of U.S. citizens without their knowledge and in flagrant violation of the law. The program operated from 1952 to 1973. Originally it only intercepted letters to and from the Soviet Union, but it was expanded at various points to include letters to and from Asia and Latin America. Its purpose included gathering intelligence about Americans speaking out on politics at home.

Over the years, the CIA steamed open hundreds of thousands of private letters using hot kettles and letter openers — until it developed a special oven that “baked” the letters open. The contents were photographed, the letters resealed and sent on their way. Information was shared with the FBI.

The CIA opened the mail of novelist John Steinbeck, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling, playwright Edward Albee and then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey, among others. According to Timothy Naftali, a New York University historian, the program didn’t identify a single Soviet spy in its two decades. Neither the president nor Congress ever authorized the program.


Most of what we know about this scandalous betrayal of American trust emerged thanks to a bipartisan U.S. Senate panel known as the Church Committee, after its chairman, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho). In those days, Congress wasn’t polarized and paralyzed as it is today, and despite sharp ideological differences among its members, the committee was remarkably cooperative and effective. It heard from 800 witnesses and published a six-book-long final report on a wide range of intelligence agency abuses, including the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program that spread malicious disinformation to “disrupt” and “neutralize” antiwar and civil rights activists .

It was inspirational, frankly, how the committee stood up to the cynical, lawbreaking agencies that were trampling on the 1st, 4th and God-knows-what-other amendments.

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On the morning of Sept. 24, 1975, for instance, James Angleton, the legendary, then-recently retired head of CIA counterintelligence, was summoned to testify in Room 318 of the Russell Senate Office Building. An orchid-growing, Yale-educated Anglophile superspook who truly believed the CIA was above the law, he was grilled by Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.).

Mondale: What was your understanding of the legality of the covert mail operation?

Angleton: That it was illegal.

Mondale: … So that a judgment was made, with which you concurred, that although covert mail opening was illegal, the good that flowed from it, in terms of the anticipating threats to this country through the the use of this counterintelligence technique, made it worthwhile nevertheless.

Angleton: That is correct.

Mondale: How do you recommend that this committee deal with this profound crisis between political and legal responsibility in government, a nation that believes in laws, and what you regard to be the counterintelligence imperative of illegal activity?

Angleton conceded there should be more oversight, but argued that spy agencies needed “considerable latitude”


To which Mondale replied: “I see no authority for anyone … determining, on his own, that the law is not good enough and therefore taking it into his own hands.”

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Or as Church himself put it: “I cannot think of a clearer case that illustrates the attitude that the CIA lives outside the law, beyond the law, and that, although others must adhere to it, the CIA sits above it — and you cannot run a free society that way. Either your intelligence agencies live within the law, or the beginning of an erosion that can undermine the whole society is put in motion.”

The committee’s final report was backed by three of its five Republicans and all six Democrats. It issued 96 recommendations, leading to the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, among other things. The Church Committee has detractors but is widely viewed as one of the high points of congressional oversight in U.S. history.

Let’s hope that if the program Wyden and Heinrich have identified is actually violating Americans’ constitutional rights — as has too often happened in the past — Congress can pull itself together to object, and to fight back.

Somehow I am not confident.