The CIA took the rare step Wednesday of publicly defending its mission, following WikiLeaks’s bombshell release of the clandestine agency’s apparent hacking manual.
In an unprompted on-the-record statement, a CIA spokesman argued that the agency exists to “aggressively collect foreign intelligence,” stressed that its agents are “legally prohibited” from hacking Americans and emphasized that the public “should be deeply troubled” by the WikiLeaks release.
These are “critical points,” said the spokesman, Jonathan Liu.
But Liu, as he did Tuesday after the initial publication, reiterated that the CIA will not confirm the authenticity of the WikiLeaks materials. Former officials and experts, however, have said the documents appear credible.
The unexpected release sent shock waves through Capitol Hill, the tech industry and the public. Lawmakers called for a probe into the leak and Americans fretted that the CIA could gain access to everyday devices. The dump — which may be the first of several — included details on how the CIA transforms smartphones, computers and internet-connected televisions into spying devices.
Buried in the trove were details on how the CIA could infiltrate Apple and Android phones, as well as Samsung internet-connected televisions. The revelation led to a series of dramatic headlines, such as “How to Tell if Your Samsung TV Has Been Hacked” and “Your Samsung smart TV may have been spying on you, according to WikiLeaks docs.”
The CIA’s remarks appear to be an effort to tamp down these fears.
Liu said it is “important to note that CIA is legally prohibited from conducting electronic surveillance targeting individuals here at home, including our fellow Americans, and CIA does not do so. CIA’s activities are subject to rigorous oversight to ensure that they comply fully with U.S. law and the Constitution.”
The statement also defended the value of having such hacking tools at the CIA’s disposal. The agency faced criticism on Tuesday from digital privacy advocates, who believe the government should notify companies of flaws in their products, instead of exploiting them for spying.
“It is CIA’s job to be innovative, cutting-edge, and the first line of defense in protecting this country from enemies abroad,” Liu said. “America deserves nothing less.”
Although the CIA did not comment on the accuracy of the WikiLeaks documents, Liu did go after the anti-secrecy organization.
Americans “should be deeply troubled by any Wikileaks disclosure designed to damage the intelligence community’s ability to protect America against terrorists and other adversaries,” Liu said.
“Such disclosures,” he added, “not only jeopardize U.S. personnel and operations, but also equip our adversaries with tools and information to do us harm.”