Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 23, 2006

NYT reveals secret program to combat terrorist financing

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Investigation & Enforcement — by Christian Beckner on June 23, 2006

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.

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Comment by Right Valley

June 25, 2006 @ 3:28 pm

From The Right Valley:

The New York Times has delighted in revealing confidential information about the methods our security services are using in the war on terror. These disclosures naturally compromise our efforts to fight terrorists by making the terrorists alert as to how we track them, making the terrorist plots harder to discover and increasing the risk that terrorist attacks against the US will be undiscovered. In other words, their disclosures potentially put lives in danger.

But the Times seems to feel that the public’s “right to know” outweighs all this. If the public’s “right to know” is so strong, I think the public also has a “right to know” more about the New York Times. I think the government should do the following:

o) Tap the phones of all columnists of the New York Times and then print the names of all their sources in their articles (if these sources actually exist). The public has a “right to know” who these anonymous sources are, to better judge the credibility of their statements. This might inhibit people from giving off-the-record information to the times, but hey, the public has a right to know.

o) Print the income, net worth, and credit card and bank account numbers and balances of all editors and reporters for the New York Times. Sure, people could misuse this information, but the public’s right to this information is more important.

o) Publish the net worth and distributions from the Sulzberger trust fund. Again, this is private financial information, but the public has a right to know who is funding the Times and where the money is going. And besides, once this disclosure is made, we can find out how much the Sulzberger’s are giving to “the poor” every year!

o) Publish the political affiliations and political donations of all reporters and editors of the times, as well as political organizations they belong to. A small invasion of privacy, but that still doesn’t trump our “right to know”. If this information is displayed in a pictorial format, we can play “Where’s Waldo” to find the single Republican!

Comment by Jim Bethea

November 15, 2006 @ 3:54 pm

Sounds like a “witch-hunt” to trace money transfers, which by law are outside of the US jurisdiction.

Maybe the European Bankster [who own the federal reserve], as well as, their strong-arm IRS, are trying to figure ways to controvent how they are going to operate when the banker’s created schemes of stealing interest through the so-called national debt is about to ceiling at the 9 trillion mark.

Any such sort of taking away rights may be a little easier to take if the Spy Agencies would publish a list of “Known Suspects” to the banks and let them check for any money transfers, and then provide this information??

Giving carte blanc to agencies without any lawful jurisdiction is only going to open a system of “presumed authorities”, which I am sure will remain business as usual, even if all known terriories were apprehended.

Pingback by Why federal snooping of the international bank database is a good idea | Ars Technica

November 17, 2011 @ 12:08 am

[…] NYT reveals secret program to combat terrorist financing […]

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