ACLU Seeks Information on Extent of Bush Administration Spying

July 19, 2006 12:00 am

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Freedom of Information Act Request Seeks Data on Several New Financial Programs

NEW YORK— In an effort to determine the breadth of the Bush administration’s massive surveillance programs, the American Civil Liberties Union today filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with several government agencies seeking details of financial tracking efforts not only with regard to the SWIFT program revealed in June, but also several other financial organizations that ACLU research indicates are likely targets.

“The American public has a right to know just how many spying programs this administration has created without Congressional authorization or judicial oversight,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “We hope these official requests will help answer that question – and if illegal spying is taking place we will demand an end to it.”

According to a June 23rd story in The New York Times, the government has for several years been monitoring transactions processed by SWIFT, which is an international cooperative owned by financial organizations from around the world. That report followed earlier revelations about spying by the National Security Agency on the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure and on domestic telephone calling records.

“The Bush administration may think it can unilaterally redraw the boundaries of Americans’ privacy, but fortunately there are laws that are meant to help Americans find out what their government is doing behind closed doors,” Steinhardt added.

The ACLU’s request for information was filed with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and the Treasury Department, including the Secret Service and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network or “FinCEN.”

In addition to SWIFT, the ACLU’s FOIA request asks for information about data collected by the government from several financial institutions that are likely targets of such monitoring:

  • Bolero The Bill of Lading Electronic Registry Organization is an electronic exchange of trade for documents such as bills of lading (descriptions of shipped goods that control ownership of property when it is in transit). Owned in part by SWIFT, Bolero counts many of the world’s largest corporations as customers.
  • CHIPS The Clearing House Interbank Payment System, another financial transfer service, is privately owned by the New York Clearing House Association. It primarily handles international funds transfers denominated in U.S. dollars for banks and their large customer transactions. Customers include most of the major U.S. banks.
  • Fedwire A wire transfer service run by the Federal Reserve, Fedwire allows U.S. banks to transfer funds to other participants on behalf of each other and their customers.

“Congress supposedly killed the ‘Total Information Awareness’ program,” said ACLU Legislative Counsel Timothy Sparapani, referring to the all-encompassing data-surveillance program once headed by Admiral John Poindexter. “But it’s clear that this administration has never abandoned its misguided emphasis on mass, suspicionless data spying. We will do what we can to shed light on these activities, but it is also more important than ever that Congress and state and local authorities undertake a comprehensive investigation into just what this administration is up to.”

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