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Ben Weingarten

Federalist Senior Contributor; Claremont Institute Fellow

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US government surveilling Americans’ finances is alarming

Mar 12

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A recent report from House Republicans said that financial institutions cooperated with U.S. federal law enforcement while investigating potential or suspected extremists associated with the Jan. 6 attack. The report notes that keywords like “MAGA” and “Trump” were used to help filter through data and identify such persons. Advocates say that these filters were helpful, obvious and effective tools, but Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, says that they represent a malicious surveillance campaign that was “broad, unjustified, and jeopardized fundamental civil liberties.”

Straight Arrow News contributor Ben Weingarten shares Jordan’s perspective. Weingarten calls the individuals in question “dissenters” and says that labeling them as national security threats and utilizing financial institutions in the process should be deemed illegal.

Do you want to live in a country where your government weaponizes the financial system against you if your politics differ from those who are in power? That Communist-China-like reality may already be upon us.

Last week the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government released a report detailing how the feds, colluding with major banks, have worked to mine transaction data to surveil and target Americans — without a warrant or any basis for suspecting our countrymen committed a crime beyond their location and/or evidence of their political beliefs.

This story begins, like much of the federal government’s effort to create an American panopticon, with January 6, 2021.

According to whistleblower testimony from retired FBI supervisory intelligence analyst George Hill that would later be further corroborated, following the Capitol riot, Bank of America handed the FBI a list of all customers who used a BofA credit or debit card in the Washington, D.C., area between January 5 and January 7. This “data dump” also allegedly flagged all individuals who had ever used a BofA credit or debit card to buy a firearm.

Do you want to live in a country where your government weaponizes the financial system against you if your politics differ from those who are in power?

That Communist-China-like reality may already be upon us.

Last week the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government released a report detailing how the feds, colluding with major banks, have worked to mine transaction data to surveil and target Americans — without a warrant or any basis for suspecting our countrymen committed a crime beyond their location and/or evidence of their political beliefs.

This story begins, like much of the federal government’s effort to create an American panopticon, with January 6, 2021.

According to whistleblower testimony from retired FBI supervisory intelligence analyst George Hill that would later be further corroborated, following the Capitol Riot, Bank of America handed the FBI a list of all customers who used a BofA credit or debit card in the Washington, D.C. area between January 5 and January 7. 
This “data dump” also allegedly flagged all individuals who had ever used a BofA credit or debit card to buy a firearm.
A further probe revealed officials at Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the FBI met with myriad major financial institutions after the Capitol Riot to discuss “options for financial institutions to share customer information voluntarily with federal law enforcement outside of normal legal processes.”

Law enforcement and private institutions — including some 650 companies covering two-thirds of the US GDP — would actually coordinate via a portal led by an FBI office and DHS’ domestic intelligence branch to share intel. What did they share? 

Intel alerting companies of indicators customers were actual or would-be domestic terrorists through their “expressed opposition to firearm regulations, open borders, COVID-19 lockdowns, vaccine mandates, and the ‘deep state’” according to the report.

The Deep State sought to target those who said there was a Deep State, in other words.

The subcommittee writes:

Federal law enforcement used this report and materials like it to commandeer financial institutions’ databases and ask the financial institutions to conduct sweeping searches of individuals not suspected of committing any crimes. For example, federal law enforcement suggested that banks filter Zelle payments using keywords like “MAGA” and “TRUMP” as part of an ostensible investigation into the events on January 6, 2021, and also warned that “the purchase of books (including religious texts) and subscriptions to other media containing extremist views,” could be evidence of “Homegrown Violent Extremism.”

FinCen shared materials with financial institutions on how to use merchant category codes — codes associated with purchases — to look for potential domestic terrorists. What kind of queries did they advocate? Using keywords to comb through transactions, such as “small arms” purchases or recreational stores such as “Cabela’s,” “Bass Pro Shop,” and “Dick’s Sporting Goods.” Americans doing nothing other than shopping or exercising their Second Amendment rights were being tracked by financial institutions and federal law enforcement. Despite these transactions having no criminal nexus, FinCEN seems to have adopted a characterization of these Americans as potential threat actors and subject to surveillance.

The report naturally raises a number of troubling questions. Is this public-private coordination, seemingly in violation of due process rights and for surveilling and targeting for investigation Americans based on legally protected activities, constitutional?

 

Who are the Americans who have found themselves baselessly investigated?

What recourse do they have for these apparent abuses?

What kind of coordination has taken place that we don’t know about, and to what end?

Perhaps more important are the beyond disturbing implications that once again the government is classifying dissenters as potential national security threats and using that as a pretext to collude with private institutions to spy on and potentially pursue them. 

These powers — this collecting and mining of information with institutions we the people interact with every day — banks and credit card companies, retailers, social media platforms, and beyond — speak to a chilling threat to our liberty, and one that could increasingly be used to sanction and excommunicate political undesirables from society if we’re not careful.

In a Weaponization subcommittee hearing last week, Jeremy Tedesco of the Alliance Defending Freedom — which has represented those targeted for apparent de-banking previously — submitted testimony wherein he wrote that:

Systemic risk of political and religious bias pervades the financial industry, particularly within the largest banks and payment processors. They maintain reputational risk policies that allow them unfettered discretion to punish customers who have, in the institution’s view, problematic views. Many also have prohibitions on “hate” speech and “intolerance” that require subjective and value-based judgments on a customer’s viewpoint. Both types of policies chill speech and neither would be permissible if the government maintained the policy. But government regulators have shown a pattern and practice of coercing financial institutions to cancel customers through these policies.  

Why would we expect a government that characterizes dissenters as dangers to the homeland not to find ways, directly and indirectly, to lean on private companies to make life miserable for dissenters – to impose a social credit system with American characteristics, like that in China where those who toe the Communist Party line are rewarded, and those who flout it are punished in their private lives in everything from their ability to travel to the interest rates they secure.

Americans of all political stripes ought to vigorously oppose this madness and demand legislation to combat it.

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