U.S. searched financial data to track terror financing

A secret U.S. government program instituted shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks searched large databases of international bank transactions for terrorist activity. Publication of the program has drawn criticism from conservatives, while the program itself, believed to be secret, wasn’t actually very secret after all.

The program, run by the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Department of the Treasury, provides access to records held by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, which processes most foreign wire transfers among 7,800 financial institutions. The program is audited by Booz Allen Hamilton to ensure that only terrorism-related searches are performed.

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The cooperative’s message traffic allows investigators, for example, to track money from the Saudi bank account of a suspected terrorist to a mosque in New York. Starting with tips from intelligence reports about specific targets, agents search the database in what one official described as a “24-7” operation. Customers’ names, bank account numbers and other identifying information can be retrieved, the officials said.

The data does not allow the government to track routine financial activity, like A.T.M. withdrawals, confined to this country, or to see bank balances, Treasury officials said. And the information is not provided in real time — Swift generally turns it over several weeks later. Because of privacy concerns and the potential for abuse, the government sought the data only for terrorism investigations and prohibited its use for tax fraud, drug trafficking or other inquiries, the officials said. — New York Times

Former Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent Dennis Lormel, who was involved in the program, said that the program was critical to disrupting terrorism financing and “contributed significantly to the A- grade given the Government for Terrorist Financing by the 9/11 Commission.”

But he expressed concern that publication of the program would “undermine national security in the fight on terrorism by disrupting and diminishing an important investigative tool.”

As this situation unfolds, the question should again be posed as to why the media felt compelled to publish a story that undermines National Security by exposing a viable investigative technique to terrorists. A productive and important investigative mechanism has been disrupted and greatly diminished. Once again, why is the media more seemingly concerned about the need to inform the American public about terrorist intelligence operations that involve public records than they are about the adverse impact the report has on National Security? — Dennis Lormel

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) even went so far as to call for the New York Times to be prosecuted for publishing the story. “We’re at war, and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous,” King said.

Times executive editor Bill Keller defended the newspaper’s decision to publish in a letter printed Sunday, saying that the Bush administration’s arguments against publication didn’t hold much water.

And counterterrorism expert Victor Comras said that the program was known well before the Times published it.

But reports on US monitoring of SWIFT transactions have been out there for some time. The information was fairly well known by terrorism financing experts back in 2002. The UN Al Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Group, on which I served as the terrorism financing expert, learned of the practice during the course of our monitoring inquiries. The information was incorporated in our report to the UN Security Council in December 2002. That report is still available on the UN Website. — Victor Comras

I admit to not being qualified to judge the legality of the program. But I wonder if a program initially set up as an emergency, temporary program has suddenly become permanent by virtue of its continued existence. I wonder about mission creep, whether the program will eventually be expanded to look for things other than terrorists. And I wonder if, by publishing the existence of the program, the Times might have actually disrupted the financing of ongoing terrorist activities.