Citing “officials familiar with the programs,” the Wall Street Journal reported that the CIA and FBI collect financial information when international transactions are filed through numerous money-transfer companies, including MoneyGram and Western Union.
As with the National Security Agency’s surveillance efforts, the CIA’s actions are authorized under the 2001 Patriot Act and overseen by the same Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that has sanctioned the collection of millions of Americans’ phone records and digital data.
As an agency that specializes in foreign intelligence gathering, the CIA is only permitted to target American citizens in connection to foreign activity. Officials told the WSJ that the intent of the program is to help track the flow of money financing terrorist organizations around the world.
The CIA does not collect information on transfers that occur within the United States or on those that take place bank-to-bank. The majority of the transactions recorded take place entirely outside of the United States, the newspaper said, but some do involve cash that enters or leaves the country. In some cases, Social Security numbers are used in an attempt to connect the flow of money to a single individual.
According to the New York Times, the FISA courts have barred the CIA from learning the identities of any Americans unless there is a link to a terrorist organization. The paper also cited “several officials” saying that multiple government-run bulk collection programs are still working in secrecy and have yet to be identified.
In a hearing on October 3, NSA director Keith Alexander and CIA director James Clapper declined to discuss any surveillance activity conducted by the government outside of the already-public NSA program. The American Civil Liberties Union is also currently fighting a lawsuit concerning the Freedom of Information Act, in which the government refuses to release two other FISA court rulings that could potentially reveal surveillance programs beyond what the public is aware of.
“It suggests very strongly that there are other programs of surveillance that the public has a right to know about,” said ACLU lawyer Alexander Abdo to the Times.
The CIA refused to comment on this particular program, but it insisted that its data collection is aimed at foreign threats and not domestic ones.
“The C.I.A. protects the nation and upholds the privacy rights of Americans by ensuring that its intelligence collection activities are focused on acquiring foreign intelligence and counterintelligence in accordance with U.S. laws,” Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the agency told the Times.
This new collection program was inspired by the events culminating in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. In the lead-up to that event, Al-Qaeda successfully transferred about $300,000 into the country without being noticed, causing the U.S. to rethink the way it collects intelligence.
The revelations about the CIA program come amidst numerous reports concerning the NSA’s expanding and divisive domestic and international surveillance program, but Juan Zarate, a White House and Treasury official under President George W. Bush, told the NYT that tracking financial information has traditionally been less controversial.
“There is a longstanding legal baseline for the U.S. government to collect financial information,” Zarate said, though he did not comment on the CIA program in question.
While some lawmakers reportedly expressed some apprehension upon learning about the program, Timothy Edgar, a former top privacy lawyer who worked under both the Bush and Obama administrations, said the time has come for the government to come clean and reveal exactly what data it’s collecting from Americans.
"The public has a right to know about the broad outlines of how the government is collecting information on them," he said to the WSJ. "As a matter of basic good governance, the government should be more transparent about these kinds of collection programs."