An OpEd in the Wall Street Journal recently highlighted the power of data to stop terrorist attacks. That’s good. But, legislative limits on certain data flows can shut off access to that tool. That’s bad.
The OpEd from Stewart Whitson, a former FBI Supervisory Special Agent, took us back to May 2015 when
a police officer killed two ISIS terrorists before they could carry out an attack in Garland, Texas. The FBI identified a third member of their group, Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem, who was plotting an attack in Arizona. While surveilling him, we saw him driving toward a house. Using credit-header data, we found the name and cellphone number of the man living in the house. A few hours after the suspect left the house, my partner and I called the occupant and arranged a meeting at a safe location. The man told us Mr. Kareem had tried to intimidate him. Earlier, the same man had unknowingly helped the terrorists find a location to train for the Garland attack. He became a key witness in our investigation.
The FBI was able to prevent a terror attack by using identifying information from the private sector. This information, sometimes called “credit header” information, is vital to not just prevent fraud, but this data can literally save lives, like in the ISIS case here. Sadly, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is considering a proposal that would effectively ban businesses like consumer reporting agencies (aka credit-reporting companies) from selling credit-header data to law enforcement agencies.
“Quick access [to data] is essential,” Whitson wrote. That data could go away if Congress, federal agencies, or state legislatures limit access to and use of identifying information. Whitson adds that he “worked on hundreds of terrorism-related investigations at the FBI, all of which relied on credit-header data.” Without credit header data access, criminals, including “terrorists stand to gain the most…The threat of a terrorist attack is high, perhaps higher than it’s ever been. Will the CFPB really make it more difficult to stop terrorists and save American lives?”
Stewart Whitson, Op-Ed, The CFPB Targets an Antiterror Tool: The FBI stopped an ISIS attack in 2015 using credit-header data, which the bureau wants to restrict, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 29, 2023. Whitson is the legal director of the Foundation for Government Accountability.
Prior to joining FGA, Stewart served in the FBI as a Supervisory Special Agent leading a large Section in the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence. Earlier in his career, Stewart served as the FBI’s lead investigator following the first ISIS-claimed attack upon the U.S. homeland and deployed to Iraq, Jordan, and Eastern Europe in support of other FBI investigations. Stewart served as a member of the FBI SWAT team and as an FBI-certified legal advisor for national security-related matters.
Eric J. Ellman is Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Legal Affairs at the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA) in Washington, DC. He also served for eight months as Interim President and CEO of the Association. More