Americans who purchased Bibles, sporting goods or products associated with former President Donald Trump were flagged for surveillance by a federal government spy program, U.S. House investigators reveal.
After the January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, FBI officials told banks that Americans who support President Trump or express religious views may be suspected terrorists, and demanded banks report customers whose transactions indicated they may be political conservatives.
Such blanket surveillance is prohibited by the United States Constitution, which requires the federal government to secure a warrant, based on probable cause, specifically naming the person targeted.
“New documents obtained by the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government reveal that the federal government flagged terms like “MAGA” and “TRUMP” for financial institutions if Americans used those phrases when completing transactions,” the U.S. House Judiciary Committee revealed in a statement.
“Individuals who shopped at stores like Cabela’s or Dick’s Sporting Goods, or purchased religious texts like a bible, may also have had their transactions flagged. This kind of pervasive financial surveillance, carried out in coordination with and at the request of federal law enforcement, into Americans’ private transactions is alarming and raises serious concerns about the FBI’s respect for fundamental civil liberties,” the Committee stated.
In response, the Committee is demanding senior government officials appear for questioning.
“In light of these revelations, Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) has requested transcribed interviews from Peter Sullivan, Senior Private Sector Partner for Outreach in the Strategic Partner Engagement Section of the FBI, and Noah Bishoff, former Director of the Office of Stakeholder Integration and Engagement in the Strategic Operations Division of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN),” the Committee reveals.
Jordan’s letter to Noah Bishoff reads, in part:
“The Committee and Select Subcommittee have obtained documents indicating that following January 6, 2021, FinCEN distributed materials to financial institutions that, among other things, outline the ‘typologies’ of various persons of interest and provide financial institutions with suggested search terms and Merchant Category Codes (MCCs) for identifying transactions on behalf of federal law enforcement. These materials included a document recommending the use of generic terms like ‘TRUMP’ and ‘MAGA’ to ‘search Zelle payment messages’ as well as a ‘prior FinCEN analysis’ of ‘Lone Actor/Homegrown Violent Extremism Indicators.’ According to this analysis, FinCEN warned financial institutions of ‘extremism’ indicators that include ‘transportation charges, such as bus tickets, rental cars, or plane tickets, for travel to areas with no apparent purpose,’ or ‘the purchase of books (including religious texts) and subscriptions to other media containing extremist views.’ In other words, FinCEN urged large financial institutions to comb through the private transactions of their customers for suspicious charges on the basis of protected political and religious expression.
“In addition, the Committee and Select Subcommittee have obtained documents showing that FinCEN distributed slides, prepared by a financial institution, explaining how other financial institutions can use MCC codes to detect customers whose transactions may reflect ‘potential active shooters, [and] who may include dangerous International Terrorists / Domestic Terrorists / Homegrown Violent Extremists (“Lone Wolves”).’ For example, the slides instruct financial institutions to query for transactions using certain MCC codes such as ‘3484: Small Arms,’ ‘5091: Sporting and Recreational Goods and Supplies,’ and the keywords ‘Cabela’s,’ and ‘Dick’s Sporting Goods,’ among several others. Despite these transactions having no apparent criminal nexus—and, in fact, relate to Americans exercising their Second Amendment rights—FinCEN seems to have adopted a characterization of these Americans as potential threat actors. This kind of pervasive financial surveillance, carried out in coordination with and at the request of federal law enforcement, into Americans’ private transactions is alarming and raises serious doubts about FinCEN’s respect for fundamental civil liberties.
“As the former Director of the Office of Stakeholder Integration and Engagement in the Strategic Operations Division, you engaged regularly with financial institutions following the events of January 6, 2021, including the distribution of material about how financial institutions could use private customer information to assist federal law enforcement. As such, your testimony will aid our oversight. In particular, your testimony will help to inform the Committee and Select Subcommittee about federal law enforcement’s mass accumulation and use of Americans’ private information without legal process; FinCEN’s protocols, if any, to safeguard Americans’ privacy and constitutional rights in the receipt and use of such information; and FinCEN’s general engagement with the private sector on law-enforcement matters.”
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