The same provision under the Patriot Act that allows the National Security Agency to collect data on Americans communications also apparently is allowing the Central Intelligence Agency to collect information about some Americans financial transactions.
Image source: CIA
The Wall Street Journal reported sources close to the CIA's project divulged that the agency is building a database of international money transfers that includes the financial data of millions.
Here's how the program works, according to WSJ (emphasis added):
In this case, the secret surveillance court has authorized the Federal Bureau of Investigation to work with the CIA to collect large amounts of data on international transactions, including those of Americans, as part of the agency's terrorism investigations.
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.
The purpose of such data collection, like the NSA's classified programs leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, is to better understand and thwart potential terror threats. An unnamed source close to the program said it has helped agents understand terrorist funding and relationships.
The data collection program does not involve finances that are only domestic. The New York Times added that it also doesn't collect information on bank-to-bank transfers.
The CIA only has the legal ability to collect information on transactions that have an international component. The CIA did not comment to WSJ about the program but noted that its activities are in compliance with U.S. laws.
Although WSJ couldn't get officials informed about the program to go on the record with their names, the publication did speak with banks about their information-sharing policies:
"We collect consumer information to comply with the Bank Secrecy Act and other laws," said Western Union spokeswoman Luella D'Angelo, naming a law that requires banks to report suspicious transactions. "In doing so, we also protect our consumers' privacy and work to prevent consumer fraud."
A MoneyGram spokeswoman said, "We have reporting obligations related to suspicious transactions, money laundering and other financial crimes around the world. The laws to which we are subject generally prohibit us from discussing details." She also said, "We value our customers' privacy and work hard to protect it."
A separate data collection program relating to financial information was revealed in March this year. The U.S. Treasury planned to give agencies like the CIA and National Security Agency access to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) database, a database where “suspicious activity reports” are filed by financial institutions.
As part of Snowdon's leaks earlier this year, a German newspaper claimed the NSA was monitoring international banking and credit card transactions.
A source speaking with The New York Times hinted there is more to come in the realm of data collection programs.
“The intelligence community collects bulk data in a number of different ways under multiple authorities,” an intelligence official told the newspaper.