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Social Security Data a Major Source in Terrorism Probes

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.

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.

Attracting Notice

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.

Bin Lateef said that he has never had links to terrorist groups -- only that he went into business, raised a family and bought a home in O'Fallon, Mo., near St. Louis. "This is the only country in the whole entire world that would give me the opportunity to do what I did," he said.

William Wynne, Bin Lateef's lawyer, said, "This guy has a tattoo on his forehead that says 'productive citizen.' "

Bin Lateef pleaded guilty to felony charges of lying to federal authorities and of misusing a Social Security number. Deportation proceedings are ongoing. Prosecutors declined to comment on his case.

Like many other Social Security referrals related to homeland security prosecutions, Bin Lateef's is classified by the Justice Department as anti-terrorism.

In his report, McNulty, the deputy attorney general, signaled that investigators would continue to rely on Social Security and other government statutes not directly related to terrorism.

"There has been some criticism of our use of nonterrorism offenses, such as false statement charges, immigration fraud, and use of fraudulent travel documents, in terrorism cases," McNulty wrote. "Yet the appropriate charging of such offenses is so important to our disruption of terrorist plans that the Department has urged prosecutors to undertake initiatives to increase their use of these statutes."

Roig and Kriva were Medill School of Journalism fellows in the News 21 program of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education.

See video of Sohaib Bin Lateef discussing his case at www.washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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