As J. Clifford documents extensively, the emphasis on security over freedom in our nation’s political culture dates back prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001. However, the deployment of surveillance systems in the name of security has accelerated since 2001, and the trend shows no sign of abating. Indeed, newly released statistics from the Treasury Department show that in 2011 the financial surveillance of people by the United States government hit a new all-time record high. While the specter of terrorism was used to enable increased surveillance, these new statistics show that this surge of financial surveillance has nothing to do with stopping terrorists.
Suspicious Activity Reports: Trawling Through Financial Papers Without a Warrant
Do you remember the case of Eliot Spitzer, former Governor of New York? As you probably know, Spitzer’s political career came to an end after the government found that he’d been stepping out on his wife and consorting with prostitutes. As you may not know, Spitzer’s activities were uncovered thanks to government surveillance of Spitzer that occurred without a warrant or any prior suspicion of wrongdoing on Spitzer’s part. Whether or not Spitzer’s extramarital liaisons were proper, the surveillance of Spitzer was constitutionally improper, at least under a literal reading of the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, which declares:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Since 2001, however, 4th Amendment limits have been shoved aside when it comes to surveillance programs. As Adam Davidson of NPR reported back in 2008, the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 requires banks and other financial institutions to step up the number of “suspicious activity reports” sent to the U.S. Government regarding Americans’ financial transactions, and to use a dramatically lower standard for what qualifies as “suspicious” behavior:
Banks monitor every transaction. Every one, no matter how small…. 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.
Since Davidson’s report in 2008 during the last presidential campaign, Democrats have replaced Republicans in the White House and in control of executive surveillance functions of government. But while popular opinion holds that Democrats respect civil liberties concerns more than Republicans, the actual number of suspicious activity reports collected by the federal government has continued to climb in the Obama Era. Indeed, as new data released by the Treasury Department last month show, the number of suspicious activity reports to the federal government rose last year to a new record high.
But surely these USA PATRIOT Act reports are being used primarily to stop terrorists, you might be thinking. Surely, you might be objecting in your mind, it’s worth eroding our nation’s constitutional liberties just a bit to stop the terrorists. Such objections, however debatable they might be, presume that most of these suspicious activity reports actually have to do with terrorism. That presumption is incorrect. The Treasury Department’s report reveals that while the number of suspicious activity reports rose by 13.5% to a new high of 1.5 million from 2010 to 2011, the number of SARs having to do with terrorism actually fell 14.4%, from 711 to 609.
You read that right — only 609 of the 1.5 million suspicious activity reports to the U.S. Treasury in 2011 had anything to do with terrorism. That’s a rate of 0.04%. 99.6% of suspicious activity report surveillance activity last year reported on Americans’ activities, papers and effects — without constitutional warrants or probable cause — for reasons having nothing to do with terrorism.
For more than a decade, Republican and Democratic administrations of the U.S. government have used the spectacle of the World Trade Center attacks to justify vast surveillance programs directed at Americans, tracking activity that is not terrorist but mundane. The primary target isn’t some terrorist network. The primary target is us.
Postscript: The chances are good that you haven’t heard about this news from anywhere else. Only three news outlets, none of them in print — a Wall Street Journal blog, Housing Wire and Reverse Mortgage Daily — made any report on these new statistics, and none of these news reports revealed the vanishingly small proportion of SARs having to do with terrorism.
If you think other Americans should know about this then please, help spread the word.