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[Editorial] Keeping the Spy Agency in Check

Posted August. 04, 2009 08:43,   


The National Intelligence Service wants access to financial transaction data of individuals and companies when analyzing funds suspected of being used in terrorist activities. According to the Enforcement Decree of the Act on Reporting Specific Financial Transaction Information and Utilization, the commissioner of Korea Financial Intelligence Unit should provide information on a financial transaction exceeding 20 million won (16,373 U.S. dollars) and additional data if so requested by the Prosecutor-General and the heads of the National Police Agency, the National Tax Service, the Korea Customs Service, the National Election Commission, and the Financial Services Commission. The intelligence office says it cannot swiftly respond to probes into terrorist activities since it can see financial information only after prosecutors obtain relevant data from the intelligence unit.

Counter-terrorism activities should not be neglected. Korea should also improve its legal system for preventing terrorist financing to join the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering. Limits are needed, however, on the authority of assessment and intelligence agencies to investigate financial transactions. If unlimited access to such data is allowed, the dominant principle of financial secrecy will be broken and thus destabilize the market and violate the people’s privacy.

Intelligence authorities in the past were suspected of conducting secret investigations on prominent people and violating basic human rights. Needless to say, the spy agency committed abuses under previous authoritarian governments, and even conducted illegal wiretapping under the liberal administration of President Kim Dae-jung. Shortly before the 2007 presidential election, a middle-level intelligence officer secretly collected personal information of then presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak, including those on his property and taxes, fueling public criticism. On the bill for the Anti-Terrorism Act pending at the National Assembly, parties oppose the idea of giving intelligence access to financial transaction information of those suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. The intelligence service gets what it deserves.

The spy agency has been criticized for focusing on irrelevant tasks since Won Se-hoon was made director. Whether it took part in controversial operations is hard to prove, but similar rumors have emerged too frequently. National intelligence is under criticism for its activities to collect secret information. If allowed access to financial transaction information without a warrant, the agency will definitely go overboard. The probes into and occasional arrests of intelligence chiefs whenever a new administration takes office means the work of the agency has been determined by the government and its chiefs.

If the National Intelligence Service needs financial transaction information for its work, it should get a warrant. The urgent challenge facing the agency is to develop an advanced capability to collect intelligence yet assure the people of its political neutrality.