In the summer of 2010, a Middle Eastern businessman wanted to transfer a large sum of money from one country in the region to another. He wanted to send at least $50,000 (€37,500), and he had a very clear idea of how it should be done. The transaction could not be conducted via the United States, and the name of his bank would have to be kept secret — those were his conditions.
Though the transfer was carried out precisely according to his instructions, it did not go unobserved. The transaction is listed in classified documents compiled by the US intelligence agency NSA that SPIEGEL has seen and that deal with the activities of the United States in the international financial sector. The documents show how comprehensively and effectively the intelligence agency can track global flows of money and store the information in a powerful database developed for this purpose.
“Follow the Money” is the name of the NSA branch that handles these matters. The name is reminiscent of the famous catchphrase by former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, the whistleblower known as “Deep Throat” who offered the information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters investigating the Watergate scandal in 1972.
Financial transfers are the “Achilles’ heel” of terrorists, as NSA analysts note in an internal report. Additional fields of activity for their “financial intelligence” include tracking down illegal arms deliveries and keeping tabs on the increasingly lucrative domain of cybercrime. Tracing international flows of money could help reveal political crimes, expose acts of genocide and monitor whether sanctions are being respected.
Data Access vs. International Laws
“Money is the root of all evil,” joke the intelligence agents. According to the classified documents, the spies’ activities primarily focus on regions like Africa and the Middle East — and their efforts often focus on targets that fall within their legal intelligence-gathering mandate. However, in the financial sector, just as in other areas, the NSA also relies on maximum data collection — an approach that apparently leads to conflicts with national laws and international agreements.
Some members of the intelligence community even view spying in the global financial system with a certain amount of concern, as revealed by a document from the NSA’s British counterpart — the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) — that deals with “financial data” from a legal perspective and examines the organization’s own collaboration with the NSA. According to the document, the collection, storage and sharing of “politically sensitive” data is a highly invasive measure since it includes “bulk data — rich personal information. A lot of it is not about our targets.”
Indeed, secret documents reveal that the main NSA financial database Tracfin, which collects the “Follow the Money” surveillance results on bank transfers, credit card transactions and money transfers, already had 180 million datasets by 2011. The corresponding figure in 2008 was merely 20 million. According to these documents, most Tracfin data is stored for five years.
The classified documents show that the intelligence agency has several means of accessing the internal data traffic of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a cooperative used by more than 8,000 banks worldwide for their international transactions. The NSA specifically targets
other institutes on an individual basis. Furthermore, the agency apparently has in-depth knowledge of the internal processes of credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard. What’s more, even new, alternative currencies, as well as presumably anonymous means of payment like the Internet currency Bitcoin, rank among the targets of the American spies.The collected information often provides a complete picture of individuals, including their movements, contacts and communication behavior. The success stories mentioned by the intelligence agency include operations that resulted in banks in the Arab world being placed on the US Treasury’s blacklist.
In one case, the NSA provided proof that a bank was involved in illegal arms trading — in another case, a financial institution was providing support to an authoritarian African regime.
The most politically explosive revelations, though, concern the agency’s secret access to the SWIFT networks. Following extensive debates, in 2010 the European Union signed the so-called SWIFT agreement with the US. From its headquarters in Belgium, SWIFT handles international transactions for banks and other financial institutions. For many years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US lobbied for access to this international financial data, which SWIFT virtually monopolizes worldwide.
An initial agreement failed in early 2010 after it was vetoed by the European Parliament. A few months later, a slightly watered-down SWIFT agreement was signed with the express approval of the German government.