David Milstead, Rocky Mountain News
In the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, First Data Corp. and its Western Union unit volunteered itself for the U.S. government’s war on terror.
FBI agents happily turned the Greenwood Village-based company into a «deadly weapon» to fight terrorism, according to a new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind.
At the same time, however, the Bush administration used First Data to create a «vast search-and-seizure machine» that sifted through millions of Americans’ credit-card purchases and wire transfers, unbeknownst to congressional overseers or the secret court designed to rule on matters of domestic surveillance, Suskind reported.
A First Data spokesman declined to answer questions. The company released a statement Tuesday afternoon that said, «First Data and Western Union take security and compliance very seriously. Both companies support and adhere to all laws related to financial information and provide information to law enforcement agencies only in response to subpoenas and other lawful requests.»
«We have not worked with Mr. Suskind nor had the opportunity to read his book,» the company said.
The relationship between the U.S. government and First Data is detailed in Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, a new book that promises to take readers «deep inside America’s pursuit of its enemies since 9/11.»
While noting that Suskind’s description of the First Data efforts is «fuzzy on some of the legal questions,» Washington Post national-security reporter Barton Gellman called the book «important . . . filled with the surest sign of great reporting: the unexpected.»
The revelation threatens to pull First Data into the web of controversy that engulfed Verizon, BellSouth and AT&T after a USA Today article reported that Denver-based Qwest was the only large phone company that refused to turn large batches of calling records over to the federal government.
At the same time, the news of First Data’s role may win the company praise for its role in aiding the U.S. government’s war on terror.
On the two-year anniversary of the creation of the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence in April, then-Treasury Secretary John Snow said his department had «been at the forefront of a concerted effort with our allies around the world – public and private sector alike – to collect, share and analyze all available information to track and disrupt the activities of terrorists. . . . Financial intelligence is among our most valuable sources of data for waging this fight.»
First Data is a key player in Suskind’s book from the opening words of Chapter 1. Suskind says the Omaha office of the FBI reported to headquarters that First Data, which has a processing facility in Nebraska, «wanted to help in any way it could.» An agent named Dennis Lormel, who knew that First Data not only processed credit-card transactions but also owned Western Union, said the development «could be very, very big. . . . We need to turn this company into a deadly weapon.»
Soon after, Suskind says, federal agents were inside First Data’s Omaha facility, running the last names of the terrorists through the company’s massive records of credit-card transactions.
«Each Atta and Hanjour, around the world, needed to be checked, and followed,» Suskind writes.
The First Data collaboration grew to complement the National Security Agency’s acquisition of phone records.
Under the USA Patriot Act, Suskind writes, the FBI used thousands of «national security letters» to review the customer records of suspected foreign agents.
Also, the federal court in Omaha issued thousands of subpoenas, and «a special FBI-First Data facility was set up . . . where agents and company technicians could commune and tap into the great computers – and beyond, into the world’s financial system – in respectful sanctity.»
Rob Douglas, a Steamboat Springs-based privacy consultant, was working with the American Bankers’ Association in 2001.
«It was common knowledge in those circles that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and for a substantial period of time after, that many institutions were giving carte blanche access to federal investigators,» he said. «A lot of people were willing to look the other way and allow those domestic activities to take place.»
Suskind says the «vast search- and-seizure machine» created in part with First Data’s cooperation «swept up the suspicious, or simply the unfortunate, by the stadiumful and caught almost no one who was actually a danger to America.»
Excerpt from the book
«(FBI Agent Dennis) Lormel squinted from a distance as he watched (treasury official Jim) Gurule begin to set up. . . . Gurule unsheathed a visual aid for his presentation: a large chart showing how First Data was accessing and organizing financial information across the globe. Lormel, all 220 pounds, rushed him from across the room. ‘Are you f—— crazy? Get that sign out of here. No one is supposed to know about this.’ . . . In that day’s testimony – and many to follow – no one uttered the name First Data.»
Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, describing how government agents kept First Data’s name out of a congressional briefing on the war on terror
David Milstead, Rocky Mountain News