What Are NSA’s Standards for Surveilling Transnational Crime Organizations?

Yesterday, the Italian magazine Panorama claimed that the NSA had wiretapped the Vatican.

I have some questions about the veracity of the report. NSA has denied it more vigorously than other allegations of tapping world leaders. Panorama is not known to have access to the Edward Snowden documents. One key claim — that the current Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has been surveilled since 2005 — was actually sourced to WikiLeaks in the story (In addition to cables on Argentine politics, Bergoglio shows up in a 2003 cable speculating on the possibility of a Latin American Pope).

All that said, I am intrigued by this claim.

Panorama said the recorded Vatican phone calls were catalogued by the NSA in four categories – leadership intentions, threats to the financial system, foreign policy objectives and human rights.

I did a quick review of WikiLeaks cables on the Vatican (remember, these are classified at no more than the Secret level, and therefore are not going to have any intercept information in them, and they of course stop at 2010). The human rights issues pertain to interfaith dialogue and the rights of Catholics in repressive countries, the Church’s role in anti-gay laws, and allegations of anti-Semitism (this cable, on the Church prioritizing unity and thereby endorsing Holocaust denial, is one of the few Secret ones). There are fewer that relate directly to the Church’s role in the financial system; though a good many cables with “financial” content relate to Syria or, especially, Lebanon, and include the Vatican because of its influence with Christian power brokers in the region (this cable, on Syrian money laundering, was forwarded to the Vatican mission for some reason).

But there two other reasons why the Vatican might be an NSA target based on those topics: its multi-decade cover-up of pedophilia (and the impact legal investigations and settlements might have around the world), and the Vatican’s role in money laundering. The recent disclosures of Vatican money laundering suggest Iraq, Iran, and Indonesia have used the bank, as well as the Italian mafia, but given its ties to Lebanon, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were also laundering money from that country, which is another close focus of the US’ own money laundering attention.

In other words, in addition to wiretapping the Vatican because it wields special influence in countries around the world (the leadership intentions and foreign policy objectives category), the US would have reason to surveil it because of what amount to Vatican actions that make it a Transnational Criminal Organization, completely apart from matters of faith.

That is, if NSA applied its apparent mandate to track TCOs indiscriminately.

But I bet you they don’t. While I am sure they track Latin American, African, and South Asian drug networks, I’m certain they track Russian mobsters who have ties to online crime, and I’m sure they are tracking and probably have an active role in the investigation of Yakuza’s ties to big Japanese banks (most of these are either named Treasury drug kingpin or TCO targets), I also believe if the NSA tracked transnational crime organizations generally, its efforts would be shut down tomorrow.

Imagine, for example, if in addition to using Title III wiretaps (though barely) and self-disclosure and evidence generated by other financial institutions in put-back suits, the NSA used its bulk collection to track JPMC’s international transfers to see whether any of it constituted “foreign intelligence,” and from that referred any evidence of a crime to the FBI? Imagine if the NSA were stealing all of JPMC’s transfer information, even outside its access to SWIFT, to see how JPMC laundered its world-destabilizing actions through multiple jurisdictions? And both JPMC and HSBC have a known history of material support for terrorism, which certainly ought to justify such spying (noting, of course, that I think JPMC did get spied on in conjunction with the Scary Iran Plot, which may have forced FinCEN to settle with it on other outstanding sanction violation issues).

They wouldn’t even need to track JPMC and other multinational banks in the name of transnational crime and terrorism; the Sovereign Wealth Funds of the world — both of volatile Middle Eastern countries, Asian targets, but even in Europe — have effectively become foreign policy entities. Do they track what Qatar and the Emirates do with their SWFs?

As I said, I doubt it. While I suspect as this scandal develops we’ll find more and more evidence that the NSA has spied on targets selected for their financial competition with the US and UK (we’ve already seen hints they collected intelligence on the Euro versus the dollar, Brazil’s competitive position vis as vis the US, for example), I also suspect if there were ever a hint that the NSA treated JPMC or HSBC like it did other TCO targets, it would get shut down in a matter of weeks.

13 replies
  1. Snoopdido says:

    More NSA non-denial denials: Magazine says NSA spied on Vatican; U.S. denies it – http://www.latimes.com/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-magazine-nsa-spied-pope-20131030,0,1761494.story#axzz2jIVY5BfL

    “An NSA spokeswoman, Vanee’ Vines, categorically denied the claim.

    “The National Security Agency does not target the Vatican,” she said in an email. “Assertions that NSA has targeted the Vatican, published in Italy’s Panorama magazine, are not true.”

    Even a passing parsing of this official NSA statement only produces an NSA denial of “targeting” the Vatican, and not an NSA denial that it didn’t collect calls of the Vatican as a result of “reverse targeting”.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @Snoopdido: But the claim is they were collecting on phones at the Vatican, which is targeting.

    As I said, thus far I treat this denial as qualitatively different than most of the other ones, which usually amount to confirmation.

  3. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    @emptywheel: It can also depend on how you wish to define “The Vatican”. Just like POTUS is not the White House, the Pope is not the Vatican, and persons or organizations of interest within the Vatican are not “the Vactican”.

    (I went through Watergate, so parsing non-denial denials is like exercising an atrophied muscle.)

  4. lefty665 says:

    The NSA and its predecessors have obtained sigint from the Vatican at least since early WWII. I don’t recall ever seeing that they have renounced that interest. The protestants have been doing it since the Reformation.

    What better source for things to come or confessed sin than the hand of god hisself?

  5. Peterr says:

    (this cable, on Syrian money laundering, was forwarded to the Vatican mission for some reason).

    The reason is likely tied to the arrival of the new US Ambassador to the Vatican at the time. In Dec 2007, Mary Ann Glendon was confirmed as the new ambassador to the Holy See, though she didn’t present her credentials to Benedict until a week after this cable was written. (The delay was likely tied to various issues of protocol and scheduling, and wouldn’t materially affect her functioning as the ambassador in everyday situations.)

    Glendon is a lawyer, and well known in RC circles for her strong anti-abortion views. She turned down Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal when it was announced that the insufficiently anti-abortion Barack Obama would be the commencement speaker at the ceremony where her medal would have been given to her.

    Where this gets interesting is that this past June, Pope Francis appointed Glendon as one of a five member commission to investigate and help reform the Institute for Religious Works (aka the Vatican Bank). Clearly he saw something in her and her background that makes her appropriate for this very touchy position, beyond simply “she used to be here before and knows the players.”

    Taken together, this says to me that one of the issues Glendon dealt with from day one as US Ambassador to the Holy See was watching the Vatican Bank for money laundering and other financial shenanegans. Indeed, it might have been part of why she was named to the post by Bush in the first place, if Bush saw the same things in 2007 that Francis saw in 2013. Given that the cable in question is all about messing around with financial controls, I’m sure that’s why the Vatican was included on the routing here.

  6. thatvisionthing says:

    I also believe if the NSA tracked transnational crime organizations generally, its efforts would be shut down tomorrow.

    waiting for it


    Thank you!


  7. thatvisionthing says:

    Also, because my brain is very small, I was racking it trying to find an earlier thread (years ago) re Catherine Austin Fitts and trying to figure out what the big picture was. Phrase I came up with was “global criminal conspiracy” but search failed. Because it really was “giant criminal enterprise” (boundless):


    In response to harpie @ 32

    My brain is way too small.

    Ok, Austin Fitts had software in the ’90s that mapped HUD defaults and linked to database showing drug trafficking, and lo and behold they were the same places, and it was big business, and it was the CIA running drugs and laundering money and it was/is HUGE. HUD giant criminal enterprise. CIA giant criminal enterprise. Thomas Donahue wonderful servant to giant criminal enterprise, links go back 20 years to offshoring jobs and CIA, yet also was Secretary/Treasurer of the AFL-CIO from 1975-1995 (huh?). Meets with Timmeh Geithner, wonderful servant to giant criminal enterprise. Giant criminal enterprise goes back forever and spreads out forever and everything we can ever hope to do will be captured and subverted to giant criminal enterprise. Serfs up. Am I close?

    Is the upshot that giant criminal enterprise is systemic, that every single person can only ever be its servant and no one ever its master? One nation, one world, under giant criminal enterprise?

    Tell me again why we have a CIA and make it beyond law, oversight and reason?

    Is that the picture?

  8. thatvisionthing says:

    While I suspect as this scandal develops we’ll find more and more evidence that the NSA has spied on targets selected for their financial competition with the US and UK

    Thinking of Wikileaks cables showing US State Department acting as strongarm shill for Monsanto. Speaking of giant criminal enterprises.

  9. lysias says:

    I would speculate that the Vatican has been a target of U.S. intelligence since the height of the Cold War. The CIA and the rest of the U.S. government has had a phobia about Communists entering Italian government since the 1947 election in Italy, when the very first covert action of the new CIA, very much allied at the time with the Vatican (as well as the Mafia), led to the defeat of the Communists. The terrorist actions of Gladio, the murder of Aldo Moro, the bombing in the Bologna train station were all motivated by this U.S. phobia. I suspect the behavior of John XXIII as Pope was a great shock to the CIA and the rest of the U.S. government. The sudden death of Pope John Paul I, followed by the election of John Paul II, looks very suspicious. John Paul II opposed Bush fils’s war in Iraq, as the new Pope Francis opposed the prospective U.S. attack on Syria. So targeting the Vatican makes a kind of sense.

  10. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    Yes, it is interesting with all of NSA’s surveillance capabilities, especially Swift, that we haven’t heard a peep about the $20 trillion that various ‘enterprises’ have shuffled out to tax havens.

    If there was truly any interest in shutting down terrorism, drug trafficking, people trafficking and a wide range of other crime it could be done in an instance by exposing the financial activities of those involved.

    It is impossible to run a big business, legal or otherwise, in cash, so all the flows of funds are electronic and known.

    Seize those financial assets and most of the World’s corruption would end in an instance, but, as you point out EW, any attempt at pursuing the financial assets of criminal enterprise would see the NSA shut down in a heartbeat.

    If there is one leak I dream about it is these financial details. Funny how WikiLeaks’ big Bank of America leak vanished, and whatever happened to Rudolph Elmer?

    One day.

  11. posaune says:

    @lysias: remember that rumor making the rounds that the CIA influenced JPII’s election. Who knows? But there was also talk about the trade-offs between the CIA and JPII during 1980-82: the CIA would kill off liberation theology in Latin America, and in return US would support Solidarity with cash.

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