News reports disclosing the Bush administration’s use of a special bank surveillance program to track terrorist financing spurred outrage in the White House and on Capitol Hill, but some specialists pointed out yesterday that the government itself has publicly discussed its stepped-up efforts to monitor terrorist finances since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks….
…a search of public records — government documents posted on the Internet, congressional testimony, guidelines for bank examiners, and even an executive order President Bush signed in September 2001 — describe how US authorities have openly sought new tools to track terrorist financing since 2001. That includes getting access to information about terrorist-linked wire transfers and other transactions, including those that travel through SWIFT.
“There have been public references to SWIFT before,” said Roger Cressey, a senior White House counterterrorism official until 2003. “The White House is overreaching when they say [The New York Times committed] a crime against the war on terror. It has been in the public domain before.”
Victor D. Comras , a former US diplomat who oversaw efforts at the United Nations to improve international measures to combat terror financing, said it was common knowledge that worldwide financial transactions were being closely monitored for links to terrorists. “A lot of people were aware that this was going on,” said Comras, one of a half-dozen financial experts UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recruited for the task.
“Unless they were pretty dumb, they had to assume” their transactions were being monitored, Comras said of terrorist groups. “We have spent the last four years bragging how effective we have been in tracking terrorist financing.”
Indeed, a report that Comras co-authored in 2002 for the UN Security Council specifically mentioned SWIFT as a source of financial information that the United States had tapped into. The system, which handles trillions of dollars in worldwide transactions each day, serves as a main hub for banks and other financial institutions that move money around the world. According to The New York Times, SWIFT executives agreed to give the Treasury Department and the CIA broad access to its database.
I can hear the righties now — the UN Security Council are traitors, too.
SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is the international banking cooperative that quietly allowed the Treasury Department and the CIA to examine hundreds of thousands of private banking records from around the world.
But the existence of SWIFT itself has not exactly been a secret. Certainly not to anyone who had an Internet connection.
SWIFT has a Web site, at swift.com .
It’s a very informative Web site. For instance, this page describes how “SWIFT has a history of cooperating in good faith with authorities such as central banks, treasury departments, law enforcement agencies and appropriate international organisations, such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), in their efforts to combat abuse of the financial system for illegal activities.”
(And yes, FATF has its own Web site, too.)
Yet yesterday press secretary Tony Snow said he was “absolutely sure” terrorists didn’t know about SWIFT. Sure.
As explained by Ron Suskind on Monday’s Hardball, some time back terrorist organizations deducted that their financial transactions were giving them away.
MATTHEWS: Well let me just tell you what you said. â€œEventually not surprisingly,â€ and weâ€˜re talking about electronic transfer surveillance, â€œour opponents figured it out. It was a matter really of deduction. Enough people got caught and a view of which activities had in common provides clues as to how they may have been identified and apprehended. We were surprised it took so long,â€ said one intelligence official.
So in other words, the bad guys figured out how we were catching them.
SUSKIND: Right, itâ€˜s a process of deduction. After a while, you catch enough of them, theyâ€˜re not idiots. They say, â€œWell, we canâ€˜t do the things we were doing.â€ Theyâ€˜re not leaving electronic trails like they were.
Matthews was quoting from page 279 of Suskind’s new book, The One Percent Solution. If you start reading on the previous page, you see that Suskind was writing about all manner of “electronically traceable activities — from satellite phone calls to bank account withdrawals.”
And that’s largely how we managed, from early 2002 to late 2003, to know a great deal about al Qaeda, get a sense of who was connected to whom, and capture quite a few suspects, most of whom have vanished into overseas U.S. prisons or similar, maybe worse destinations inside Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Egypt. …
Eventually, and not surprisingly, our opponents figured it out. It was a matter, really, of deduction. Enough people get caught and a view of which activities they had in common provides clues as to how they have have been identified and apprehended.
“We were surprised it took them so long,” said one senior intelligence official. …
…The al Qaeda playbook, employed by what was left of the network, its affiliates and imitators, started to stress the necessity of using couriers to carry cash and hand-delivered letters. This slows the pace of operations, if not necessarily their scale, and that was, indeed, a victory. …
Incarnations of terror cells, meanwhile, were taking shape. Stealthy, diffuse, and largely unconnected to a centralized network, these were self-activated, often self-funded, and ready to download key operational guidance from an explosion of jihadist Web sites. There was no money to trace; no calls up and down the chain of command they needed to make …
There’s been some speculation about why the White House doesn’t seem interested in going after who in government leaked the program to the New York Times. Maybe it’s because there was no leaker.
Yet the pile-on continues. The Hill reports that House Republicans leaders are expected to introduce a resolution condemning the New York Times for “leaking” information about the SWIFT program. Howie Kurtz concedes —
President Bush calls the conduct of the New York Times “disgraceful.” Vice President Cheney objects to the paper having won a Pulitzer Prize. A Republican congressman wants the Times prosecuted. National Review says its press credentials should be yanked. Radio commentator Tammy Bruce likens the paper to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Even by modern standards of media-bashing, the volume of vitriol being heaped upon the editors on Manhattan’s West 43rd Street is remarkable — especially considering that the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal also published accounts Friday of a secret administration program to monitor the financial transactions of terror suspects. So, in its later editions, did The Washington Post.
That’s because this isn’t about national security. It’s about politics. Republicans are out to smear everybody who stands still long enough to get smeared in order to deflect public dissatisfaction away from themselves. And if GOP party operatives plus the usual useful idiots like Tammy Bruce keep repeating the story that media is the enemy, that will make future propaganda efforts sooo much easier. Although it’s not as if media were getting in the way of the propaganda catapults up to now.