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Social Security Data a Major Source in Terrorism Probes
One database lists basic application information from people seeking Social Security numbers. The other contains wage and earnings histories compiled by the agency that are used to determine Social Security benefits.
The Internal Revenue code normally prohibits Social Security from releasing information in the wage and earnings database, even to law enforcement agencies. But IRS and Social Security officials are permitted to waive that rule in "life-threatening situations." A 30-day waiver was granted immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks and was extended four times by the IRS through early 2002, Lasher said.
Huse said he asked Congress several times unsuccessfully for permanent authority to release information in the wage database to federal law enforcement officials investigating potential terrorist activity.
One of the earliest uses of Social Security data in homeland security investigations came before the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Ronald Ingleby, resident agent in charge of the Social Security inspector general's office there, worked with the U.S. attorney's office to acquire about 10,000 employee records from the local airport authority and had his staff search Social Security records. As a result, 69 workers were indicted for alleged misuse of Social Security numbers on applications for airport security badges.
The program, which was expanded to many of the nation's airports as well as ports and other facilities, resulted in hundreds of guilty pleas, largely from Latino workers with no discernible links to terrorist groups. The workers had used fake or stolen Social Security numbers to gain employment or acquire access badges.
Federal agents also began turning to Social Security to check dubious records brought to their attention or to run down terrorism leads. In one case, a tip that al-Qaeda might try to poison military rations led to checks on workers at a meals-ready-to-eat factory in Texas. Several were convicted in 2004 of possessing or using false documents, though the case files show no evidence of a poisoning plot.
Other cases led to charges against members of document-counterfeiting rings in Maryland and New York.
Bin Lateef believes he originally came to the attention of investigators because he was a Pakistani national with a check-cashing company among his holdings. He said authorities began looking into his business in 2003. He also said that for a number of years he sent as much as $24,000 to $36,000 annually to his family in Pakistan, sometimes using "hawala," the system of informal money transfers in which cash moves between friends and relatives.
His lawyer believes authorities also were concerned about a September 2003 trip Bin Lateef took with his family through Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Germany.
Commenting on this type of case, Jimmy Gurule, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame who was undersecretary for enforcement at the Treasury Department from 2001 to 2003, said a number of issues would have interested investigators. "The combination of the international travel, the combination of the money being transferred abroad through a hawala-type system or certainly the use of false identification documents are all red flags of possible terrorist activity," he said.
An inquiry turned up Bin Lateef's Social Security fraud. He had entered the United States on a student visa in 1980 to attend Southern Illinois University. A 1985 application to extend his stay was denied, but he said he became a legal permanent resident alien in 1988 under the Reagan administration's immigration reform.
However, to get the green card, Bin Lateef said, he used a false name on the application based on bad advice from acquaintances. A year or two later, he obtained a Social Security number with that false name.