Washington is reportedly considering opening all US financial records to national intelligence agencies in order to prevent future crimes. Only the FBI has had unlimited access to such databases; other agencies had to file case-by-case requests.
The Obama administration is preparing legislation to enable the country’s numerous security and intelligence agencies to spy on the accounts of US citizens, Reuters has revealed. The scheme’s stated aim is to help to identify and track terrorist cells, expose money-laundering schemes, trace criminal syndicates and curb corruption.
“It’s a war on money, war on corruption, on politically exposed persons, anti-money laundering, organized crime,” Amit Kumar, the UN advisor on Taliban and a fellow at the Democrat-established Center for National Policy think tank told Reuters.
The plan, dated March 4, is in its early stages but appears to have no judicial obstacles, as US legislation does not prohibit the exchange of information between government bodies. However, human rights activists have already criticized the plan
The planning document obtained by Reuters that the US Treasury’s financial database, which previously was only fully accessible by the FBI, will soon be integrated with national criminal, intelligence and other databases to become accessible to “law enforcement, counter-terrorism agencies, financial regulators and the intelligence community.”
Today, the US Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) does not only collect data on clients of financial institutions, it also gathers reports of so-called ‘suspicious client activity’.
An estimated 25,000 financial institutions operating inside US territory – like banks, money transfer agencies, securities dealers and casinos – are obliged to report any activity considered suspicious, such as large (over $10,000) cash transfers, strangely account structures, computer hacking, counterfeiting and suspected money laundering.
The system is arranged so that if a bank is revealed to have not reported its clients’ suspicious activities, it risks of paying severe fines. Many banks err on the side of caution, and file reports on any activity deemed even slightly unusual: Every year, 15 million ‘suspicious activity reports’ are filed to the US Treasury, which allocates considerable resources to deal with them all.
If the Obama administration’s financial spy plan is enacted, US government agencies will have access to virtually all financial information on citizens or foreigners doing business in the US.
Currently, investigating a financial crime involves unraveling a tangle of evidence that could lead to a certain person, such as demanding a specific financial dossier from FinCEN. Once agencies like CIA, NSA or Counter Terrorism Center are allowed unrestricted access to FinCEN data, it would become possible for them to target an individual and arrest them for a crime for which they are not currently under investigation.
A US Treasury spokesperson vowed the agencies will adhere to safeguards outlined in both the Bank Secrecy Act and the US PATRIOT Act: “Law enforcement and intelligence community members with access to this information are bound by these safeguards.”
But Michael German, the senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Reuters that “the intelligence community simply ignores the rules” when it comes to how sensitive information is used.
German recalled Congress had refused to approve a similar plan a decade ago, but now “the guidelines were subsequently loosened… It’s in a black hole.”