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While hardly as dramatic as ongoing revelations of Big NSA Brother probing every aspect of Americans’ lives, overnight the WSJ reported that in addition to the complete loss of privacy – which should now be taken for granted – the CIA has been added to the list of entities that scrutinize every online interaction, and is “building a vast database of international money transfers, including Western Union, that includes millions of Americans’ financial and personal data, officials familiar with the program say.” The program will be (and is) carried out under the same provision of the Patriot Act that enables the National Security Agency to collect nearly all American phone records. In other words, instead of being upfront that all the CIA, and administration, care about is tracking large flows of money that may have “evaded” taxation, and is traditionally used by expats to send modest amounts of money back to their host countries, what the CIA is instead focusing on is whether mom and pop are using Western Union to deposit $500 in Al-Qaeda’s account in Afghanistan.
The WSJ explains as much:
The data is obtained from companies in bulk, then placed in a dedicated database. Then, court-ordered rules are applied to “minimize,” or mask, the information about people in the U.S. unless that information is deemed to be of foreign-intelligence interest, a former U.S. official said.
A limited number of analysts are allowed to search the database with queries that meet court-approved standards. This is similar to the way NSA handles its phone-data program.
The CIA, as a foreign-intelligence agency, is barred from targeting Americans in its intelligence collection. But it can conduct domestic operations for foreign intelligence purposes. The CIA program is meant to fill what U.S. officials see as an important gap in their ability to track terrorist financing world-wide, current and former U.S. officials said.
The program serves as the latest example of blurred lines between foreign and domestic intelligence as technology globalizes many activities carried out by citizens and terrorists alike. The CIA program also demonstrates how other U.S. spy agencies, aside from the NSA, are using the same legal authority to collect data such as details of financial transactions.
Ah yes, “limited number.” And since every single American is a potential sponsor of terrorism, it is only logical that this latest dragnet covers absolutely every single US citizen. And in the outlier case that the CIA also taps, investigates, records, and just happens to forward to the IRS, every single money transfer originating or terminating in the US, oh well.
The data collected by the CIA doesn’t include any transactions that are solely domestic, and the majority of records collected are solely foreign, but they include those to and from the U.S., as well. In some cases, it does include data beyond basic financial records, such as U.S. Social Security numbers, which can be used to tie the financial activity to a specific person. That has raised concerns among some lawmakers who learned about the program this summer, according to officials briefed on the matter.
What is peculiar is that unlike wire transfers which are virtually unlimited in size, and scrutinized by all relevant, and irrelevant, authorities money transfers are for the most part tiny and anything that is of a more sizable amount, over $3000, is already subject to the microscope treatment:
Money transfer forms differ depending on location and type. But they ask for the names, addresses and telephone numbers of senders and receivers. Depending on the transfer, senders and receivers also may be asked to provide the date and place of their birth. In most locations in the U.S., people sending $1,000 or more must provide an ID such as a driver’s license. People sending $3,000 or more must provide additional ID, such as a Social Security number or passport.
However, it appears the small transfer limit did not trouble Al-Qaeda:
The money-transfer program appears to have been inspired by details of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist plot, in which the al Qaeda hijackers were able to move about $300,000 to U.S.-based bank accounts without arousing suspicion. In part, it was because the transactions were comparably small and fit the pattern of the remittances used by immigrants or foreign visitors to send money home.
Some of the transfers were between bank accounts, but some moved through person-to-person transfers. In 2000, Sept. 11 plot facilitator Ramzi Binalshibh made a series of transfers, totaling more than $10,000, from Germany to the U.S., where they were collected by hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi. Two transfers were through MoneyGram and two through Western Union.
And while hardly as dramatic in the grand scheme of things, the WSJ report shows just how much, or little, personal privacy hinges on one simple word:
That program was institutionalized by 2006 and continues under a controversial authority tucked into a part of the Patriot Act known as Section 215. That law permits the government to obtain “tangible things,” including records, as long as the government shows it is reasonable to believe they are “relevant” to a terrorism investigation.
Under that provision, the U.S. government secretly interpreted the term “relevant” to permit collection of records on millions of people not necessarily under suspicion. That secret interpretation, used to justify the legality of the phone-records program, was brought to light in the wake of the revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The interpretation also was used by CIA as the legal underpinning of its bulk financial-records effort under the money-transfer program, officials said.
One doesn’t need to clarify that just like with the NSA, the CIA is logging, recording and analyzing every single money transfer of even the most nominal amount. Which, quite simply, continues to build an architecture for the full tracing of all electronic monetary transactions in the US. Because once every flow of funds is logged at even the most micro level, the US will be able to not only regulate and supervise, but to implement any type of capital and fund flow controls it desires. Which it will in due course.