Transparency? Obama Misses First Update of Suspicious Activity Reports
In March of 2008, Adam Davidson of NPR revealed the massive increase in “Suspicious Activity Reports” to monitor the purchasing and financial transactions of you and prominent “politically exposed persons,” without a warrant, to uncover evidence of precrime. Here’s Davidson’s description of how Suspicious Activity Reports work in the age of Homeland Security:
Banks monitor every transaction. Every one, no matter how small…. “Your transaction is being transferred to the bank and it will be loaded into our transaction monitoring system and we will actually add this transaction together with several other types of transaction that you’ve done recently.” The software is checking to see if maybe that $4 is part of a pattern…. The report goes to a bank’s compliance officer, listing all recent suspicious transactions. Every transaction is given a numerical score…. The computer makes the score based on who is making the transaction, where does he come from, who is he associated with, what else is he up to. Every bank customer has, somewhere, in some computer database, a risk assessment score…. It also checks a bunch of lists. Are you on a terror watch list? A list of criminals?… A PEP — banks really do use that term — is anybody with political power. That means a Nigerian General, a U.S. Senator, or say the Governor of New York. And any PEP — any Politically Exposed Person — is monitored more carefully…. The Patriot Act forced banks to more closely monitor suspicious activity.
Remember Eliot Spitzer, Governor of New York? He was brought down politically after — without any evidence, without a warrant — his extramural, extramarital activity was brought to light through government collection and analysis of, yes, Suspicious Activity Reports.
Since then, I’ve been tracking the Department of Treasury’s twice-annual reports of these Suspicious Activity Reports (also known as SARs). The SAR Activity Review By The Numbers report has been issued twice a year — once in the fall and once in May or June — since 2003, with trend information extending back to 1996. Here’s a representation of the available data as of the release of the last By The Numbers report in November 2008 during the waning days of the Bush administration:
You can see why the trends are important to follow; since the passage of the Patriot Act the volume of Suspicious Activity Reports filed with the government has ballooned. Notice the asterisk for 2008 — the November 2008 report, of course, could not include all data for 2008, but only data on reports up through June 2008. The figure for 2008 was a preliminary extrapolation. To get full data on the volume of SARs for 2008, we’d have to wait for the regular By The Numbers report, scheduled to be released in May or June of 2009.
May and June of 2009 have passed, and as you can see here (as of today, July 2) there is no new report available.
Candidate Barack Obama ran for president on the pledge that his administration would champion transparency in government. When federal snooping on the financial activity of everyday Joes and “Politically Exposed Persons” goes undisclosed, that does not strike me as “transparent.”
Did I mention that at the end of this year, a number of provisions of the Patriot Act will expire unless they are renewed by Congress? Continued public disclosure of Suspicious Activity Report trends would complicate this renewal. When information about Patriot Act surveillance is swept quietly under the carpet, renewal of the Patriot Act’s provisions is made that much simpler.