US Central Intelligence Agency is building a vast database of international money transfers that includes millions of Americans' financial and personal data, the Wall Street Journal quoted officials familiar with the program as saying on Saturday.
The program, which collects information from U.S. money-transfer companies including Western Union, WU is carried out under the same provision of the Patriot Act that enables the National Security Agency to collect nearly all American phone records, the officials said. Like the NSA program, the mass collection of financial transactions is authorized by a secret national-security court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
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 US officials see as an important gap in their ability to track terrorist financing world-wide, current and former U.S. officials said.
The CIA declined to comment on specific programs but said its operations comply with the law and face oversight from Congress, the FISA Court and internal watchdogs. "The CIA 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 US laws," said agency spokesman Dean Boyd.
In a typical money transfer, a person goes to a company such as Western Union and uses cash or a credit card to send funds to someone else. The recipient can pick up funds at a local money-transfer office. This process differs from, say, a bank transfer, in which funds might be moved from one account to another.
Details about money transfers are kept by the companies providing the service; that information is turned over to the CIA under court orders. Former officials named wire-transfer giant Western Union as a participant.
The full roster of participants couldn't be learned. Other large, global money-transfer companies include MoneyGram; there are numerous smaller firms.
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 US official said.
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 US-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.