The Biden administration has acknowledged a controversial surveillance effort that used politically charged terms such as “MAGA” and “Trump” to monitor private banking transactions. This is the first time the administration has publicly admitted to using these specific keywords in surveillance related to the events of January 6.
Senator Tim Scott, a prominent Republican member of the Senate Banking Committee, has criticized this surveillance approach as a “flagrant violation of Americans’ privacy” in a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
Senator Scott argued that the surveillance targeted U.S. citizens for exercising their constitutionally protected rights without due process.
In a letter to Senator Scott, the Treasury Department mentioned “exchange events” organized by its Financial Crimes Enforcement Network as part of the surveillance.
Notably, a financial institution reportedly developed search terms like “MAGA” and “Trump” for internal use and shared with FinCEN to flag potentially suspicious activities. However, “Kamala” and “Biden” were also used.
While the name of the originating bank remains undisclosed, allegedly, FinCEN passed these terms to other banks to facilitate similar searches.
The House Judiciary Committee revealed that federal investigators instructed banks to use terms like “MAGA” and “Trump” to filter customer transactions as part of the January 6 investigation. They also warned that purchases of “religious texts” could be indicators of “extremism.”
The committee, along with its subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, oversees federal law enforcement’s interaction with private sector information and its use without legal processes.
Chair Jim Jordan stated that post-January 6, 2021, the Treasury Department’s FinCEN distributed materials to financial institutions, outlining “typologies” of interest and providing suggested search terms for identifying transactions on behalf of law enforcement.
The materials included recommendations to use terms like “Trump” and “MAGA” for searching Zelle payment messages and highlighted indicators of “Lone Actor/Homegrown Violent Extremism.”
Jordan criticized FinCEN for using financial institutions to scrutinize private transactions based on protected political and religious expression.
The committee is requesting a transcribed interview with Noah Bishoff, former director of FinCEN, for further information.
Documents also show that FinCEN distributed slides from Key Bank to other banks on how to use merchant category codes to detect potential threats, including transactions at stores like Cabela’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Sources familiar with the documents stated that while the January 6 event triggered the queries, there were no specific timeframes for the searches, and the information was used for investigations beyond that date.
Jordan expressed concern over the surveillance of transactions related to Second Amendment rights and questioned FinCEN’s respect for fundamental liberties.
Additionally, Jordan requested a transcribed interview with Peter Sullivan from the FBI’s Strategic Partner Engagement Section, following testimony that Bank of America provided the FBI with transaction data without legal process.
Bank of America told Fox News that it followed all applicable laws and cooperated with the committee’s evaluation of the laws. The Department of Treasury responded with a letter to Sen. Scott regarding the allegations.
“While we are still looking into the details of these events, [January 6] we understand that these FinCEN Exchange events included government and private sector representatives who voluntarily participated in discussions and information exchanges focused on identifying the perpetrators of this attack and providing support to ongoing law enforcement investigations,” the letter alleges.
“…to the extent key words or phrases were suggested, it was expected they would be used alongside other factors and data that banks regularly analyze as part of their AML programs to detect and report suspicious activity.”