Why the Feds Want Access to Credit Records

AS things stand now, car dealers and department stores can review individual credit records more easily than can investigators trying to head off terrorist attacks.

That's one reason the Clinton administration introduced legislation this week that would make it easier for authorities to get access to financial records, down to peoples' hotel stubs and Master-Card statements.

Police believe such powers would prove invaluable in speeding up investigations and possibly preventing heinous acts, though others worry about ''Big Brotherism'' and invasion of privacy.

Like other changes being proposed by the administration to crack down on terrorism in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, the records-access provisions raise broad questions of how far the government should go in maintaining civil order.

''The movement in social-control policy is to shift toward ongoing surveillance and a constant assumption of potential guilt,'' says John Gilliom, a political science professor at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

The records provisions are contained in the Antiterrorism Amendments Act of 1995 that President Clinton sent to Congress Wednesday. It would expand the ability of federal agents to pull information from consumer- credit reports, records from hotels, motels, rental agencies, and transportation services such as airlines.

Such credit reports combine in one file salary, loan, charge-card, banking, employment, and other information that might take days to piece together individually.

According to Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, the credit-reporting provisions were adopted from legislation proposed earlier this year by Rep. Doug Bereuter (R) of Nebraska. Under his bill, a subject's work history and data on where he or she banks must be turned over to FBI agents if they present a ''national-security letter'' signed by a top-ranking bureau official. To gain access to the entire file, the FBI would need a court order.

This information can now be obtained with a court order once a criminal investigation is under way, says a House Judiciary Committee staff member. The difference, he adds, is that the new provisions would allow agents access in circumstances ''that may or may not involve an imminent criminal investigation.''

''Let's face it; you don't want to wait until a building is blown up'' to stop a terrorist attack, he says.

To an investigator, access to such information is less important for learning about any individual purchase than for detecting inconsistencies that raise questions in an agent's mind, says Harvey Burstein, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston and a former FBI agent.

Someone who earns $25,000 a year, has big debts, no savings, and drives a Ferrari would raise some red flags, as would purchases of bomb ingredients or large amounts of weapons and ammunition over time by a member of an antigovernment group.

Early warning of potential criminal activity already exists for money-laundering, through the US Treasury's Financial Crime Enforcement Network. Using high-speed computers and a database built from documents that banks must supply under the Bank Secrecy Act, FinCEN can scan for ''suspicious'' transations.

That information is cross-checked against information on 17 commercial data bases to quickly zero in on suspects. In one instance, the agency reportedly took only 45 minutes to convert a phone number and fragment of a first name into enough evidence for a federal prosecutor to seek an indictment in a drug case.

To Professor Burstein, speed in terrorism cases is critical. Under current law, the FBI must persuade a federal attorney to seek a subpoena from a federal magistrate or judge to obtain to credit information.

''Some judges move more quickly than others,'' he notes.

Yet mindful of the federal government's history of abuse of investigative authority -- from the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover during the 1950s and '60s to Immigration and Naturalization Service infiltration of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s -- some antiterrorism and privacy specialists are uneasy about the administration's proposals. ''If the FBI is allowed access to credit reports to look for leads, then they could go on 'fishing trips.' That's a big opening in law-enforcement capabilities,'' says Mr. Gilliom.

''The danger is that when you surrender powers under one set of circumstances, what prevents them from being used for other purposes?'' asks Thomas Mockaitis, a DePaul University political scientist who studies counterterrorism. ''The powers that government already has are adequate if we would criminalize some activities that are now perfectly legal rather than extend the surveillance capabilities of government.''

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