Massive Government Data Mining of Financial Records
Apparently, warrantless wiretapping and gathering of phone call records just aren’t enough to quench the Bush Administration’s thirst for data. Now we learn that the government has gathered massive quantities of financial records. The New York Times reports:
Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States, according to government and industry officials.
The program is limited, government officials say, to tracing transactions of people suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda by reviewing records from the nerve center of the global banking industry, a Belgian cooperative that routes about $6 trillion daily between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions. The records mostly involve wire transfers and other methods of moving money overseas and into and out of the United States. Most routine financial transactions confined to this country are not in the database.
Viewed by the Bush administration as a vital tool, the program has played a hidden role in domestic and foreign terrorism investigations since 2001 and helped in the capture of the most wanted Qaeda figure in Southeast Asia, the officials said.
The program, run out of the Central Intelligence Agency and overseen by the Treasury Department, “has provided us with a unique and powerful window into the operations of terrorist networks and is, without doubt, a legal and proper use of our authorities,” Stuart Levey, an under secretary at the Treasury Department, said in an interview on Thursday.
The program is grounded in part on the president’s emergency economic powers, Mr. Levey said, and multiple safeguards have been imposed to protect against any unwarranted searches of Americans’ records. . . .
That access to large amounts of confidential data was highly unusual, several officials said, and stirred concerns inside the administration about legal and privacy issues.
“The capability here is awesome or, depending on where you’re sitting, troubling,” said one former senior counterterrorism official who considers the program valuable. While tight controls are in place, the official added, “the potential for abuse is enormous.”