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How safe is your money? US Treasury says it limits spy access to bank books

Published time: June 09, 2014 12:35
The US Treasury Building in Washington, DC (AFP Photo/Karen Bleier)

The US Treasury Building in Washington, DC (AFP Photo/Karen Bleier)

While not denying that it allows US intelligence agencies sneak peeks at “suspicious” money transactions by its clients, including those by Americans, the Treasury Department said it sets limits on what the spies may view.

In response to a freedom of information request, the Treasury released information as to how it allows the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the primary organization of the US government for analyzing intelligence on terrorism, to examine reports that banks create on suspicious or large cash transactions made by customers.

The partially redacted document, reported by Bloomberg, also established conditions for intelligence agencies conducting searches on the Treasury’s database.

“Financial data can be some of the most relevant as to how people are connected,” NCTC director Matthew Olsen told Bloomberg. “That’s why it’s vital that we have access” to the FinCEN database, he said.

US banks keep records on more than 15 million currency transaction reports annually on the movement of $10,000 or more into or out of an account, according to FinCEN, a department that falls under the US Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI). Meanwhile, financial institutions such as banks, brokerages and even casinos, file more than 1.5 million suspicious activity reports each year.

Although the NCTC tracks travel habits, communication records and other relevant information when investigating possible terrorist activity, following the money is of primary importance, and has been used to trace financial moves from people in the US to terrorist organizations in Yemen or Syria, Olsen said.

“Financial connections are the most binding between people,” he added. “When we can find connections based on money, it’s not a smoking-gun piece, but it helps with analysis.”

Reuters/Larry Downing

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which seemed to fast-track a huge intelligence foray into the lives of private citizens, many people have become increasingly concerned as to what sort of information is being collected on them in the name of security.

Last summer, Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower, blew the cover on America’s worldwide data-collection program, which exposed the Obama administration to harsh global criticism. Since then, Washington has been attempting to assure US citizens and foreign allies that the United States is not the Orwellian nightmare some say it has become.

10 things we didn’t know before Snowden

A 2010 memorandum of understanding between the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the NCTC attempted to address those suspicions by requiring that the spy agencies strive to retrieve data that pertains only to specific cases and immediately destroy data obtained “in error.”

“The data we collect is publicly known,” FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery told the news agency. “It’s not raw data. It’s suspicious, large-cash transactions that meet a threshold.”

“We think we’ve gotten that balance right, although it is something we must always be ready to re-examine.”

Last month, European MEPs voted by 544 to 78 in favor of putting on hold many joint EU-US programs, including one dubbed SWIFT, a financial-record sharing program designed to track terrorist activity.

The Snowden leaks showed the NSA gained a “back door” entrance into the SWIFT servers, which revealed the banking details of millions of European citizens, despite the fact that access to these financial data had been strictly limited by the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP).