Senate Republican demands answers from Treasury on push for banks to ‘surveil’ customer transactions in 2021

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EXCLUSIVE: The top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee is demanding answers from the Treasury Department and its financial crimes enforcement division after revelations the agencies urged private financial institutions to ‘surveil’ private transactions using ‘politically charged search terms’ to flag customer profiles to federal law enforcement.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., penned a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and FinCEN Director Andrea Gacki on Friday after Fox News Digital exclusively reported that the agency suggested in January 2021 that banks use specific search terms to query transactions, including ‘MAGA,’ ‘Trump,’ ‘Biden’ and more, along with merchant codes from specific sporting goods stores.

‘I write regarding recent reporting that the U.S. Treasury Department (Treasury) through its Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) urged private financial institutions to surveil customers’ transaction-level data using politically charged search terms, in order to flag certain customer profiles on behalf of Federal law enforcement,’ Scott wrote in the letter, obtained by Fox News Digital. ‘These allegations, if true, represent a flagrant violation of Americans’ privacy and the improper targeting of U.S. citizens for exercising their constitutional rights without due process.’

Scott pointed to the Fox News Digital report, which revealed that FinCEN provided materials to financial institutions instructing them to search and filter Americans’ financial data using keywords and search terms, as well as merchant category codes to aid law enforcement in identifying persons of interest ahead of the Jan. 20, 2021 inauguration — weeks after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

The terms and codes were discovered as part of a House Judiciary Committee and Subcommittee on Weaponization of the Federal Government investigation. The committees obtained documents indicating that MCC codes were used to query transactions like: ‘3484: Small Arms,’ ‘5091: Sporting and Recreational Goods and Supplies’ and the keywords ‘Cabela’s,’ ‘Dick’s Sporting Goods’ and ‘Bass Pro Shops,’ among others.

The House Judiciary Committee also obtained documents revealing that FinCEN warned financial institutions that an ‘extremism indicator’ could be ‘the purchase of books (including religious texts),’ like the Bible, and subscriptions to certain media ‘containing extremist views.’

‘These allegations are particularly concerning given past efforts to weaponize the financial system and payment activity against politically disfavored, lawful activity,’ Scott wrote. ‘Under the Obama administration’s ‘Operation Choke Point’ initiative, the Department of Justice (DOJ) coordinated with federal financial regulators to intimidate financial institutions into denying services to legitimate businesses that the administration was ideologically opposed to, including gun retailers.’

Scott said that ‘the weaponization and misuse of MCC codes is not a new issue either,’ saying members of Congress have recently raised concerns about the potential to ‘surveil the free exercise of lawful activity using an MCC code — the same concern is at issue here.’ 

‘Federal government efforts to target individuals and entities based on their political views is a blatant and egregious violation of our Constitution,’ Scott wrote. ‘Additionally, reported actions like these disrupt confidence in federal law enforcement and raise significant questions regarding the independence of federal financial regulators.’

Scott is demanding that the Treasury Department and FinCEN turn over information on the ‘role, if any,’ FinCEN played in ‘soliciting financial data from private companies’ to help law enforcement to identify targets after Jan. 6.

Scott is also asking if anyone from any other executive branch agency — like the Justice Department or FBI — ever directed, requested or encouraged FinCEN to engage in those alleged activities.

Scott is also asking for answers on what the basis was for FinCEN to conclude that the purchasing or possessing of religious texts ‘may be indicative of extremism,’ and who at FinCEN decided to warn banks of that possibility.

Scott has also requested a list of the financial institutions that FinCEN met with when suggesting the search for transactions of customers who shopped at Bass Pro Shops, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Cabela’s, and a list of all agencies in the government involved in the decision to search and filter those transactions.

Scott has asked the Treasury Department to turn over that information by Feb 2.

Meanwhile, sources familiar told Fox News Digital on Thursday that the search terms, like ‘MAGA’ and ‘Trump,’ were generated by a bank and used to help them identify suspicious transactions when reviewing customer transactional information. It is unclear which bank generated the search terms. 

The sources said FinCEN then shared those terms with other banks to help those financial institutions to comply with their own suspicious activity reports.

However, beyond the terms identified by the House Judiciary Committee, the unnamed bank generated other terms, which FinCEN shared with other banks, the sources told Fox News Digital. 

The source said the additional search terms included: ‘White Power,’ ‘Camp Auschwitz,’ ‘Antifa,’ ‘Proud B,’ ‘Storm, the,’ ‘Capitol,’ ‘Groyper Army,’ ‘Threepers,’ ‘boogaloo,’ ‘civil war,’ ‘last sons,’ ‘kill,’ ‘shoot,’ ‘gun,’ ‘death,’ ‘murder,’ ‘Biden,’ ‘Kamala,’ ‘Pelosi,’ ‘Schumer’ and ‘Pence.’

The sources said the distribution of the search terms began in the final weeks of the Trump administration after Jan. 6, 2021.

Meanwhile, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who made the initial discovery, is requesting the former FinCEN official and an FBI official appear before his committee and the Weaponization Subcommittee for transcribed interviews to aid in the panel’s oversight investigation. 

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