Western Union and MoneyGram Turning Over Money Transfer Information To The CIA
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.
Money-transfer companies are "highly, highly aware of their obligations under the Patriot Act," said Robert Pargac, a director in global investigations and compliance at Navigant Consulting Inc. who has worked at several such companies. Western Union said last month it would be spending about 4% of its revenue in 2014 on compliance with rules under the Patriot Act, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control and other anti-money-laundering and terrorist-financing requirements.
The likely existence of bulk collection programs other than phone-records data has been mentioned in a recently declassified opinion from a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves such programs.
Some officials who have overseen surveillance programs, like Timothy Edgar, a former top privacy lawyer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council in the Bush and Obama administrations, say it is time for the government to make known what categories of data are being obtained under broad Patriot Act authorities.
"The public has a right to know about the broad outlines of how the government is collecting information on them," he said, noting that the FISA Court has noted the existence of other collection programs. "As a matter of basic good governance, the government should be more transparent about these kinds of collection programs."
The CIA and the Treasury Department have a different program that collects transactions between financial institutions from the Belgian cooperative known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Communication, or Swift. That program doesn't collect data from person-to-person transfers.
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.
After the 2001 attacks, the CIA worked with Western Union, which voluntarily helped set up a program to collect data on money transfers between the U.S. and overseas, as well as purely foreign ones with voluntary compliance from companies, as has been previously reported.
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.
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.
Lawmakers have asked repeatedly whether intelligence agencies are using the Patriot Act to collect financial or other information in bulk outside the phone-records program. In public forums, officials have either mentioned that the information is classified or focused on whether the NSA collects such data, with no mention of the CIA or other agencies. Several lawmakers from both parties are seeking to curb the ability to use the Patriot Act for bulk collection of records.
“There is a longstanding legal baseline for the U.S. government to collect financial information,” said Mr. Zarate, who is also the author of “Treasury’s War,” about the crackdown on terrorist financing. He did not acknowledge the C.I.A. program.
Orders for business records from the surveillance court generally prohibit recipients from talking about them. A spokeswoman for one large company that handles money transfers abroad, Western Union, did not directly address a question about whether it had been ordered to turn over records in bulk, but said that the company complies with legal requirements to provide information.
“We collect consumer information to comply with the Bank Secrecy Act and other laws,” said the spokeswoman, Luella Chavez D’Angelo. “In doing so, we also protect our consumers’ privacy.”
In recent months, there have been hints in congressional testimony, declassified documents and litigation that the N.S.A. program — which was disclosed by Edward J. Snowden, a former N.S.A. contractor — is not unique in collecting records involving Americans.
For example, the American Civil Liberties Union is fighting a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for documents related to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the provision that allows the government to compel companies to turn over business records for counterterrorism purposes. After the government declassified the N.S.A. phone records program, it has released many documents about it in response to the suit.
But the government has notified the A.C.L.U. that it is withholding two Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court rulings invoking Section 215 — one dated Aug. 20, 2008, and the other Nov. 23, 2010 — because they discuss matters that remain classified, according to Alexander Abdo, an A.C.L.U. lawyer. “It suggests very strongly that there are other programs of surveillance that the public has a right to know about,” Mr. Abdo said.
In addition, a Justice Department “white paper” on the N.S.A.’s call records program, released in August, said that communications logs are “a context” in which the “collection of a large volume of data” is necessary for investigators to be able to analyze links between terrorism suspects and their associates. It did not say that call records are the only context that meets the criteria for bulk gathering.
In hearings on Capitol Hill, government officials have repeatedly avoided saying that phone logs — which include date, duration and numbers of phone calls, but not their content — are the only type of data that would qualify for bulk collection under the Patriot Act provision. In a little-noticed exchange late in an Oct. 3 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the N.S.A. director, appeared to go further.
At the hearing, Senator Mazie K. Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, asked General Alexander and James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, a sweeping question: “So what are all of the programs run by the N.S.A. or other federal agencies” that used either Section 215 of the Patriot Act or another surveillance law that allows warrantless wiretapping of phone and emails?
General Alexander responded by describing, once again, the N.S.A.’s call records program, adding, “None of that is hid from you.” Mr. Clapper said nothing.
Then, moments later, General Alexander interjected that he was talking only about what the N.S.A. is doing under the Patriot Act provision and appearing to let slip that other agencies are operating their own programs.
“You know, that’s of course a global thing that others use as well, but for ours, it’s just that way,” General Alexander said.
In September, the Obama administration declassified and released a lengthy opinion by Judge Claire Eagan of the surveillance court, written a month earlier and explaining why the panel had given legal blessing to the call log program. A largely overlooked passage of her ruling suggested that the court has also issued orders for at least two other types of bulk data collection.
Specifically, Judge Eagan noted that the court had previously examined the issue of what records are relevant to an investigation for the purpose of “bulk collections,” plural. There followed more than six lines that were censored in the publicly released version of her opinion.
Lawmakers on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have been trying to gain more information about other bulk collection programs.
In September, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin and an author of the original Patriot Act, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asking if the administration was collecting bulk records aside from the phone data. An aide said he had yet to get a response. Even lawmakers on the Intelligence Committees have indicated that they are not sure they understand the entire landscape of what the government is doing in terms of bulk collection.
Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently sent a classified letter to Mr. Clapper asking for a full accounting of every other national security program that involves bulk collection of data at home or abroad, according to government officials.
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