European Officials Ask ACLU to Document Firm's Conflicts
NEW YORK - The role of the consulting and engineering firm Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc. in providing oversight for the SWIFT surveillance program, much touted by the program’s defenders, was called into significant question today by the American Civil Liberties Union and Privacy International, which released a memo that they prepared at the request of European regulators, documenting the consulting firm’s close ties to the U.S. Government.
The New York Times reported today that the regulators were planning to issue a report this week concluding that Booz Allen did not constitute independent supervision of the SWIFT monitoring program, and that the program is of dubious legality under European law.
“It is bad enough that the administration is trying to hold out a private company as a substitute for genuine checks and balances on its surveillance activities,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “But of all companies to perform audits on a secret surveillance program, it would be difficult to find one less objective and more intertwined with the U.S. government security establishment.”
After it was revealed in June that the Bush Administration was sifting through the records of financial transactions carried out by a financial cooperative, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, an uproar ensued over the lack of legal basis or oversight. In response, the government claimed that the searches were audited by Booz Allen (though the details of that process were never made clear).
Among the research findings contained in the memo is that Booz Allen is not only one of the largest government contractors, with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts awarded each year, and therefore heavily dependent on the very agencies it is supposedly overseeing, but also that:
“We knew that Booz Allen was a large contractor, but even so the results of this research are quite startling,” said Steinhardt.
The ACLU/PI research memo was prepared at the request of the European Article 29 Working Group, an advisory body to the European Commission made up of national data protection authorities from throughout the European Union. The ACLU and Privacy International have both testified before the Article 29 Working Group. In June, Privacy International sent a letter to European privacy commissioners calling upon them to launch investigations of the SWIFT data sharing.
Steinhardt said that the ACLU and PI were sharing the results of its research with data protection officials around the world, many of whom were conducting their own investigations into the SWIFT scandal. “We and Privacy International are working to make sure that extensive ties between Booz Allen and the government they are supposed to be monitoring are well known to the authorities charged with enforcing their nations’ privacy laws,” he said.
“Even the weak reed of oversight that the Bush Administration has been leaning upon – Booz Allen – is highly suspect,” said Steinhardt. “If nothing else, Booz Allen is a prime example of a government-industry ‘revolving door’ of shared personnel.”
The research memo is available at: www.aclu.org/pdfs/safefree/boozallen20060914.pdf