The New York Times published their latest bombshell story today, about a secret program that has been in existence since shortly after 9/11 to detect terrorist-related financial transactions on a global basis, via the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a bank consortium that runs a messaging service used to communicate financial transactions on a global basis. From the story:
The program is limited, government officials say, to tracing transactions of people suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda by reviewing records from the nerve center of the global banking industry, a Belgian cooperative that routes about $6 trillion daily between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions. The records mostly involve wire transfers and other methods of moving money overseas and into and out of the United States. Most routine financial transactions confined to this country are not in the database.
Viewed by the Bush administration as a vital tool, the program has played a hidden role in domestic and foreign terrorism investigations since 2001 and helped in the capture of the most wanted Qaeda figure in Southeast Asia, the officials said.
The program, run out of the Central Intelligence Agency and overseen by the Treasury Department, “has provided us with a unique and powerful window into the operations of terrorist networks and is, without doubt, a legal and proper use of our authorities,” Stuart Levey, an under secretary at the Treasury Department, said in an interview on Thursday.
The story goes on to note the role of the program in tracking down Southeast Asian terror ringleader Hambali, discuss the legal issues associated with it, and tell the story of how the program came into existence and the turmoil within the federal government and with SWIFT over its scope.
I’ve been critical of the NSA program that was revealed by the same New York Times reporters in December. But I think this program is very different, and plays a valid and important role in the war on terrorism, for three reasons:
First, unlike the NSA program, it doesn’t involve a far-ranging “vacuum” of data, but instead apparently uses the data on a targeted basis, focusing on known terror suspects and well-defined investigations. As Levey notes in the story, “We are not on a fishing expedition.” SWIFT acts as a gatekeeper to the data; the CIA and the Treasury Dept. don’t own or control it.
Second, there are strict safeguards in place to prevent misuse of the data, involving system controls to prevent misuse and an outside auditing firm to ensure compliance.
Third, financial data is different from personal communications; from a philosophical standpoint, I would argue that the former is inherently less deserving of privacy protection than the latter.
Based on the content of the story, I’m glad that this program exists – and although I usually err on the side of openness and disclosure, this is one program that I would’ve been fine to see remained cloaked in secrecy. This story could cause would-be terror financiers to rethink their money movement activities; and if SWIFT were to pull back from cooperation with the US government because of any controversy generated by this story (it’s still too early to judge the political fallout from it, if any), then that would be a real shame.
Update (6/23): The Washington Post summarizes the administration’s response to the story today. And be sure to check out Dennis Lormel’s post over at the Counterterrorism Blog – he was involved with program, and provides a solid defense of it.
Update 2 (6/23): While I rue the fact that this program has been made public, in no way do I concur with the press- bashing that has followed the release of this story. We live in a democratic society with a free press – a reality that sometimes makes it difficult for us to pursue clandestine activities over the long-term, but ultimately makes us a stronger nation, by creating a strong civic society and providing a check on harmful or overzealous government behavior. Would we be a stronger nation in the war against terror if we had lived in authoritarian state that censored or bullied the press? No. We would be weak, because we would undermine our greatest strength: our civic patriotism and belief in America. Those who would criticize the New York Times for publishing this story need to acknowledge that the same rights and freedoms that allow them to publish this story are the rights and freedoms that make us strong as a nation, and that we’re fighting to preserve and protect in the war on terror.