The Feds Are Watching

As If That's News

Andrew Sullivan has a post entitled The Feds Are Watching, which I'll quote in its entirety:

Don't pay off your credit card debt in one big chunk, or Homeland Security will be after you.
The link goes to a blog entry of J. Francis Lehman, which is entitled "That 'harmless' and 'neccessary' [sic] Patriot Act". Which quotes in full a February 22 column written by one Bob Kerr from the Providence (RI) Journal. Kerr's column is titled "Pay too much and you could raise the alarm".

Kerr writes about Walter Soehnge, who claims that his recent $6,522 payment to his JCPenney Platinum MasterCard was reported to the Department of Homeland Security because this payment was "a certain percentage higher" than Walter's normal payment.

Kerr reports this with the standard mixture of snarky sarcasm and grave concern for endangered rights.

Walter called television stations, the American Civil Liberties Union and me. And he went on the Internet to see what he could learn. He learned about changes in something called the Bank Privacy Act.

"The more I'm on, the scarier it gets," he said. "It's scary how easily someone in Homeland Security can get permission to spy."

Eventually, his and his wife's money was freed up. The Soehnges were apparently found not to be promoting global terrorism under the guise of paying a credit-card bill. They never did learn how a large credit card payment can pose a security threat.

But the experience has been a reminder that a small piece of privacy has been surrendered. Walter Soehnge, who says he holds solid, middle-of-the-road American beliefs, worries about rights being lost.

"If it can happen to me, it can happen to others," he said.

But at this point I'm saying: doesn't this kind of sound like the story about the UMass student who claimed that DHS agents visited him because he checked out Quotations From Chairman Mao over Interlibrary Loan? His story fell apart over the course of a few days, but it remains as a demonstration of how easily both bloggers and MSM-types can be gulled by a yarn that feeds their political preconceptions.

Is that happening here? I think so. One warning flag is that Kerr (apparently) is relying solely on Soehnge's version of events. And Lehman relies on Kerr, and Sullivan relies upon Lehman. There's no independent verification at all.

And it's tough to tell what's being referred to by the "Bank Privacy Act". But this suggestive blurb appers at the ACLU website in the midst of a 1990 article entitled "ACLU Says Banks Continue to Spy on Customers":

The ACLU said that it was only seven years ago that Congress amended the Bank Secrecy Act to require that banks file so-called "suspicious activity" reports, which banks must file whenever a transaction of $5,000 or more is carried out by a customer.
The "Bank Secrecy Act." Is this what Soehnge is talking about? Almost certainly. It Googles up a storm, anyway. It was originally passed in 1970; as the ACLU says, it requires banks to file "Suspicious Activity Reports" for out-of-the-ordinary financial activities, and the results go to a host of law enforcement agencies. The details of what banks are required to report have changed over the years, and some of the changes are due to the Patriot Act, but the main reporting mechanism has been in place for decades. (The banks have some discretion about what to report, and this recent WSJ article suggests that they're erring on the side of Way Too Much.)

If you're in the mood to browse the regulations, here is the "Comptroller's Handbook" issued by the Treasury Department. One of the things it expects banks to report is a "spike in the customer's activity with little or no explanation." And (please note) the date on this document is September 2000, well before the Patriot Act was a gleam in the eye of Chimpy McBushitler.

Hence, I strongly suspect that what Walter Soehnge experienced with his big check to JCPenney was a routine occurrence, both before and after the dreaded Patriot Act. Silly as it is, it's nothing particularly new.

Of course, if anyone wants to rip out the 36-year-old legislation that requires banks to routinely report weird-ass financial transactions to the Feds on the possibility that they might be related to illegal activity, they'll get two thumbs up from me.

But the point here is that this is almost certainly not a privacy abuse due to Dubya, Homeland Security, and the Patriot Act. Even a little skeptical checking on the part of Kerr, Lehman, or Sullivan might have revealed this. Instead it looks as if we're seeing the same old story: Bush-hatred makes one incredibly gullible, incapable of thinking critically about tales that seem to show we're all in terrible peril of losing our rights because of That Man.

At least Andrew Sullivan doesn't do this sort of thing on a regular basis. Oh, wait