The Obama administration is drawing up plans to give all U.S. spy
agencies full access to a massive database that contains financial data
on American citizens and others who bank in the country, according to a
Treasury Department document seen by Reuters.
The proposed plan represents a major step by U.S. intelligence
agencies to spot and track down terrorist networks and crime syndicates
by bringing together financial databanks, criminal records and military
intelligence. The plan, which legal experts say is permissible under
U.S. law, is nonetheless likely to trigger intense criticism from
Financial institutions that operate in the United States are required
by law to file reports of "suspicious customer activity," such as large
money transfers or unusually structured bank accounts, to Treasury's
Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).
The Federal Bureau of Investigation already has full access to the
database. However, intelligence agencies, such as the Central
Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, currently have to
make case-by-case requests for information to FinCEN.
The Treasury plan would give spy agencies the ability to analyze more
raw financial data than they have ever had before, helping them look
for patterns that could reveal attack plots or criminal schemes.
The planning document, dated March 4, shows that the proposal is
still in its early stages of development, and it is not known when
implementation might begin.
Financial institutions file more than 15 million "suspicious activity
reports" every year, according to Treasury. Banks, for instance, are
required to report all personal cash transactions exceeding $10,000, as
well as suspected incidents of money laundering, loan fraud, computer
hacking or counterfeiting.
"For these reports to be of value in detecting money laundering, they
must be accessible to law enforcement, counter-terrorism agencies,
financial regulators, and the intelligence community," said the Treasury
A Treasury spokesperson said U.S. law permits FinCEN to share
information with intelligence agencies to help detect and thwart threats
to national security, provided they adhere to safeguards outlined in
the Bank Secrecy Act. "Law enforcement and intelligence community
members with access to this information are bound by these safeguards,"
the spokesperson said in a statement.
Some privacy watchdogs expressed concern about the plan when Reuters outlined it to them.
A move like the FinCEN proposal "raises concerns as to whether people
could find their information in a file as a potential terrorist suspect
without having the appropriate predicate for that and find themselves
potentially falsely accused," said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior
counsel for the Rule of Law Program at the Constitution Project, a
non-profit watchdog group.
Despite these concerns, legal experts emphasize that this sharing of
data is permissible under U.S. law. Specifically, banks' suspicious
activity reporting requirements are dictated by a combination of the
Bank Secrecy Act and the USA PATRIOT Act, which offer some privacy
National security experts also maintain that a robust system for
sharing criminal, financial and intelligence data among agencies will
improve their ability to identify those who plan attacks on the United
"It's a war on money, war on corruption, on politically exposed
persons, anti-money laundering, organized crime," said Amit Kumar, who
advised the United Nations on Taliban sanctions and is a fellow at the
Democratic think tank Center for National Policy.
The Treasury document outlines a proposal to link the FinCEN database
with a computer network used by U.S. defense and law enforcement
agencies to share classified information called the Joint Worldwide
Intelligence Communications System.
The plan calls for the Office of the Director of National
Intelligence - set up after 9/11 to foster greater collaboration among
intelligence agencies - to work with Treasury. The Director of National
Intelligence declined to comment.
More than 25,000 financial firms - including banks, securities
dealers, casinos, and money and wire transfer agencies - routinely file
"suspicious activity reports" to FinCEN. The requirements for filing are
so strict that banks often over-report, so they cannot be accused of
failing to disclose activity that later proves questionable. This
over-reporting raises the possibility that the financial details of
ordinary citizens could wind up in the hands of spy agencies.
Stephen Vladeck, a professor at American University's Washington
College of Law, said privacy advocates have already been pushing back
against the increased data-sharing activities between government
agencies that followed the September 11 attacks.
"One of the real pushes from the civil liberties community has been
to move away from collection restrictions on the front end and put more
limits on what the government can do once it has the information," he
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