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14 Mar, 2013 12:33

US plans to allow spy agencies to monitor every citizen’s finances – report

US plans to allow spy agencies to monitor every citizen’s finances – report

Washington is reportedly considering opening all US financial records to national intelligence agencies in order to prevent future crimes. Only the FBI has had unlimited access to such databases; other agencies had to file case-by-case requests.

The Obama administration is preparing legislation to enable the country’s numerous security and intelligence agencies to spy on the accounts of US citizens, Reuters has revealed. The scheme’s stated aim is to help to identify and track terrorist cells, expose money-laundering schemes, trace criminal syndicates and curb corruption.

"It's a war on money, war on corruption, on politically exposed persons, anti-money laundering, organized crime," Amit Kumar, the UN advisor on Taliban and a fellow at the Democrat-established Center for National Policy think tank told Reuters.

The plan, dated March 4, is in its early stages but appears to have no judicial obstacles, as US legislation does not prohibit the exchange of information between government bodies. However, human rights activists have already criticized the plan

The planning document obtained by Reuters that the US Treasury’s financial database, which previously was only fully accessible by the FBI, will soon be integrated with national criminal, intelligence and other databases  to become accessible to “law enforcement, counter-terrorism agencies, financial regulators and the intelligence community.”

Today, the US Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) does not only collect data on clients of financial institutions, it also gathers reports of so-called ‘suspicious client activity’.

AFP Photo / Fabrice Coffrini

An estimated 25,000 financial institutions operating inside US territory – like banks, money transfer agencies, securities dealers and casinos – are obliged to report any activity considered suspicious, such as large (over $10,000) cash transfers,  strangely account structures, computer hacking, counterfeiting and suspected money laundering.

The system is arranged so that if a bank is revealed to have not reported its clients’ suspicious activities, it risks of paying severe fines. Many banks err on the side of caution, and file reports on any activity deemed even slightly unusual: Every year, 15 million ‘suspicious activity reports’ are filed to the US Treasury, which allocates considerable resources to deal with them all.

If the Obama administration’s financial spy plan is enacted, US government agencies will have access to virtually all financial information on citizens or foreigners doing business in the US.

Currently, investigating a financial crime involves unraveling a tangle of evidence that could lead to a certain person, such as demanding a specific financial dossier from FinCEN. Once agencies like CIA, NSA or Counter Terrorism Center are allowed unrestricted access to FinCEN data, it would become possible for them to target an individual and arrest them for a crime for which they are not currently under investigation.

A US Treasury spokesperson vowed the agencies will adhere to safeguards outlined in both the Bank Secrecy Act and the US PATRIOT Act: “Law enforcement and intelligence community members with access to this information are bound by these safeguards.”

But Michael German, the senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Reuters that “the intelligence community simply ignores the rules” when it comes to how sensitive information is used.

German recalled Congress had refused to approve a similar plan a decade ago, but now “the guidelines were subsequently loosened… It’s in a black hole.”

‘Citizens caught up in financial crosshairs’

The new plan will do little in increasing the efficacy of “keeping America safe,” while potentially increasing, at least partially, the risk of an innocent or “wrongly-profiled” individual being caught through a misreading of banking information, Margaret Bogenrief, a founding partner of ACM Partners financial advisory firm told RT.

“The continued efforts to 'keep its citizens safe,' the US government seems be to struggling to walk that line between protection and invasion of American citizens’ privacy,” Bogenrief said. “More citizens could end up being caught up in the financial crosshairs.”

Considering that financial institution are already over-reporting on questionable activity this new plan of enforcement and power “almost guarantees an abuse, whether intentional or not,” she added.

The true unintended tragedy of this plan is that it won’t bring a significant increase in arrests of high-profile criminals, Bogenrief believes.

“Truly sophisticated criminals – whether they be members of organized crime, gangs, or terrorist groups – will already have the structures and teams in place that will assist these criminal groups in both skirting these rules and avoiding prosecution.”

The Obama administration’s financial spying plan is a shocking attack on personal freedom, independent journalist and founder of Wide Awake News, Charlie McGrath says.

“Sold as an effort to stop international terror groups, the proposed measure pushes us ever closer to a complete Orwellian Police State where you are guilty without cause, evidence, or even accusation,” McGrath told RT.