Social Security Data a Major Source in Terrorism Probes

Social Security Poster
(Courtesy of the U.S. Social Security Administration)
By Carlos Roig and Christopher Kriva
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 10, 2006

Sohaib Bin Lateef left Pakistan for the United States more than 25 years ago and fulfilled his dreams with a suburban home, a family and a string of gas stations and convenience stores in St. Louis. But along the way, he says, he took some bad advice and obtained a Social Security number under a false name.

Now Bin Lateef, 47, faces deportation and stands to lose everything, even though he insists he has no ties to terrorists. The Justice Department lists his case as terrorism-related.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Social Security Administration's vast databases of personal information have become a resource for federal investigators, who have asked the agency to check tens of thousands of records for number misuse and identity fraud -- potential precursors to terrorist activity. Bin Lateef is one of hundreds of people convicted as a result.

The Social Security Administration is "the Fort Knox of identity information in the United States," said James Huse, the agency's inspector general from 1998 to 2004. "That's a pretty impressive investigative tool that no other agency possesses."

From just after Sept. 11 through 2005, Social Security officials sent prosecutors 456 referrals that were classified as terrorism-related, according to statistics compiled by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. The review shows that 91 percent of those referrals led to prosecutions.

Only the departments of Justice and Homeland Security have referred more terrorism-related cases for prosecution, according to the Syracuse records, which are based on data compiled by the Justice Department's Executive Office for United States Attorneys.

Still, few if any suspects in Social Security cases are ever linked publicly to alleged terrorist activity. Most cases referred to prosecutors in the months after Sept. 11 involved document fraud by Latino immigrants working at airports.

Previous studies by the Syracuse center found that thousands of cases have been referred by all agencies for prosecution under the labels of "international terrorism" or "antiterrorism." However, senior Justice officials instead usually cite the criminal division's much smaller list of terrorism-related cases, which as of June included 441 defendants and 261 convictions. Most on that smaller list were charged with crimes unrelated to terrorism, an earlier Washington Post analysis found.

Prosecutors generally will not discuss individual cases. Law enforcement officials have said that even if they have evidence of terrorist activity, it does not need to be made public if suspects can be arrested or deported on lesser charges, such as document fraud or immigration violations.

"Prosecution of terrorism-related targets on these types of charges is often an effective method -- and sometimes the only available method -- of deterring and disrupting potential terrorist planning and support activities without compromising national security information," Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty wrote in a Justice Department report in June.

The federal law prohibiting misuse of Social Security numbers is "a very easy statute from a prosecution standpoint," said Jonathan Lasher, deputy chief counsel to the Social Security Administration's inspector general. "We don't have to prove a lot in the way of motive or intent. If you represent a number to be yours that isn't yours, you've essentially met the burden."

Tapping the Data

After the 2001 attacks, authorities tapped the two main Social Security databases for information on suspected terrorists. "We were given taskings and requests, and we were responding to them as best we could in the wake of this national tragedy," said Richard A. Rohde, the Social Security Administration's assistant inspector general for investigations.

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