It has been singled out as the greatest single intelligence error leading up to the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Lack of file-sharing; the inability of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to access and share information on suspected criminal activity.
Soon after the 9-11 attacks, intelligence authorities were severely criticized for not having file-sharing measures in place. Yet now they are taking it perhaps a step too far.
“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.”
Now, it must be appreciated that a database of personal banking transactions and financial activities has already been in place for some time, known as the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).
“FinCEN is a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury,” the office introduces itself at its website. “FinCEN’s mission,” it outlines, “is to safeguard the financial system from illicit use and combat money laundering and promote national security through the collection, analysis, and dissemination of financial intelligence and strategic use of financial authorities.”
In place since 1990, FinCEN became an official bureau of the Department of the Treasury in 2002, with ever-increasing powers granted it throughout that time.
A tremendous amount of data has already been collected and stored in the FinCEN database since then. As Reuters informs, “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.”
This is quite the resource which could greatly empower law enforcement agencies in conducting investigations and bringing criminals, traffickers, and terrorists to trial. The FBI already has access to the database.
But “intelligence agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency,” explains Reuters, “currently have to make case-by-case requests for information to FinCEN.”
The new plan put forth by the Treasury is designed to simplify access to this data. After all, “’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 planning document” as cited by Reuters.
Concern is raised—rightfully so—anytime individuals’ personal and private information becomes more easily accessible. Just how much more easily will that access be had? Perhaps even more alarming—how much more easily can accusations of wrong-doing against an individual be launched?
This is precisely the concern of the senior counsel for the Rule of Law Program at the Constitution Project, Sharon Bradfrod Franklin. “[It] 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,” she expressed.
Yet legal experts affirm there is no cause for alarm in granting these additional intelligence agencies easier access to the database, since this file-sharing measure is “dictated by a combination of the Bank Secrecy Act and the USA PATRIOT Act, which offer some privacy safeguards,” Reuters explains.
Remember, these intelligence agencies already have access to the database on a case-by-case basis, and they can retrieve records on an individual after filing the necessary requests with FinCEN. The only major difference with this new provision is ready-access at will.
Yet privacy watchdogs and advocates say it’s a slippery slope. Already the Treasury proposal calls for expanding the database even further, as Reuters informs, “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.”
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The American Civil Liberties Union senior policy counsel, Michael German, notes that the Treasury plan being proposed is not restrictive enough on how an individual’s personal financial information can be used.
Quoted by NewStraitsTimes, German noted that the National Counter Terrorism Center—at one time obliged to “promptly identify and purge any innocent U.S. person’s information”—was later given greater latitude to “not only … keep the data for a number of years, but … continue to use it.”
“Time and again,” he lamented, “we have evidence, unfortunately well after the fact, that somebody’s civil rights have been violated, that the intelligence community simply ignores the rules.”
And so the age-old debate continues. Naturally we all want to be protected by our government; that’s what we elect and pay them for. But that does not mean we agree to empower the guard dogs to turn on us in an overzealous crusade to vilify anyone who by circumstance happens to fit a profile or happened to make a legal transaction that is of a rare or unordinary nature.
What is required are clear and specific file-sharing rules that must be strictly adhered to.
Yes, information must be collected, and it must be shared. No one wants the tragedy of 9-11 repeated. And no one wants their cities to be overrun by criminals laundering funds and causing havoc on the financial system.
But neither should a typical citizen find her/himself sitting under a lamp between two agents, not knowing how to answer to all sorts of accusations launched on the basis of what some believe to be “suspicious” transactions.
By all means, do give us guards to guard us from criminals. But also give us safeguards to guard us from the guards.
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