US spying on financial records

Washington, January 14:

In the latest revelation about the expanding investigative reach of the US government, The New York Times reported “the US military and CIA have been spying on the banking and credit records of hundreds of Americans and foreigners.”

The two agencies, which are barred by law from conducting domestic law enforcement wo-rk, have been issuing docume-nts known as national security letters to American companies to obtain financial records on individuals suspected of terrorism or other crimes. Military intelligence officials have used letters in about 500 investigations over the past five years, while the CIA issues a ‘handful’ of such letters every year, The Times wrote.

Civil rights experts and defence lawyers were critical of the practice. In comparison, the domestic law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), makes mu-ch more frequent use of the letters to get financial information, and served about 9,000 such letters in 2005 alone, said justice officials.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld directed military lawyers and intelligence officials to see how they could expand their intelligence collection inside and outside the US. They have cited a 1978 US law, The Right to Financial Privacy Act, as allowing government access to banking data using the letters.

The Times cited two examples where the military used the letters — one was a government contractor with unexpected wealth, another was a Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorist suspects.

The practice demonstrates the fine line that democratic governments walk during wartime in guarding civil liberties — a line that many critics feel has been crossed too often since the terrorist attacks.

The practice violates a ‘strong’ US tradition of “not using our military for domestic law enforcement,” Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, a former lawyer at the National Security Agency and the CIA said. She is now dean of the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific, California. “The-y’re moving into territory where historically they have not been authorised or presumed to be operating,” she said.

Eugene Fidell, the defence lawyer for the Guantanamo chaplain against whom char-ges were dropped, said the pra-ctice violated ‘accountability’ principles of the US justice system. “That’s the evil of it — it doesn’t leave fingerprints,” he said.

In August 2006, a US federal judge ruled that the administration of US president George W Bush was violating the US constitution by eavesdropping on international phone calls involving terrorist suspects. The ruling is under appeal.

After the terrorist attacks, president Bush authorised the super-rich National Security Agency (NSA) to listen to phone conversations without obtaining a warrant from a classified court.