CIA Double Checks its FAQs

Does the Central Intelligence Agency spy on Americans?

The official CIA answer to that question changed last month after a watchdog group questioned information posted on the frequently asked questions (FAQ) page of the CIA Web site.

Before last month, the CIA's response was straightforward:

"No. The Central Intelligence Agency is expressly prohibited by executive order from routinely engaging in the domestic use of such techniques as electronic, mail or physical surveillance, monitoring devices or unconsented physical searches. Similarly, the CIA does not maintain files on American citizens."

That "basically contradicted what we knew," said Duncan Levin, a public policy analyst for the Center for National Security Studies, a Washington-based civil liberties group. The center settled a suit with the CIA in 1995 on behalf of Daniel Tsang, a University of California librarian and political activist. Tsang, who founded a magazine called "Gay Insurgent," had learned that the CIA was keeping files on him. Under the 1995 settlement, the CIA released the files to Tsang and agreed to expunge his records.

Because the center knew the CIA had kept files on at least one American, Levin wrote a letter to the agency asking it to correct its FAQ page. In December, the agency complied.

Now the answers to the questions read:

"The CIA is restricted in the collection of intelligence information directed against U.S. citizens. Collection is allowed only for an authorized intelligence purpose; for example, if there is a reason to believe that an individual is involved in espionage or international terrorist activities. The CIA's procedures require senior approval for any such collection that is allowed, and, depending on the collection technique employed, the sanction of the attorney general and Director of Central Intelligence may be required."

The 1974 Privacy Act prohibits the CIA from collecting information on the domestic activities of U.S. citizens.

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