U.S. secretly tracking terrorists' bank data

June 23, 2006|By JOSH MEYER AND GREG MILLER | JOSH MEYER AND GREG MILLER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government, without the knowledge of many banks and their customers, has engaged for years in a secret effort to track terrorist financing by reviewing confidential information on transfers of money between banks worldwide.

The program, run by the Treasury Department, is considered a potent weapon in the war on terrorism because of its ability to clandestinely monitor financial transactions and map terrorist webs.

Current and former officials at U.S. agencies acknowledged the program's existence but spoke on condition of anonymity, citing its sensitive nature. "We're very, very protective of it," said a senior U.S. official. "It is extremely valuable."

The program is part of an arsenal of aggressive measures the government has adopted since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that yield new intelligence but also circumvent traditional safeguards against abuse and raise concerns about intrusions on privacy.

The program extracts information about bank transfers from the world's largest financial communications network, which is run by a consortium of financial institutions called the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT.

Tapping SWIFT

The SWIFT network carries up to 12.7 million messages a day containing instructions on many of the international transfers of money between banks. The messages typically include the names and account numbers of bank customers - from U.S. citizens to major corporations - who are sending or receiving funds.

The program gives U.S. intelligence analysts extraordinary access into what is essentially the central nervous system of international banking.

The Treasury Department uses a little-known power - administrative subpoenas - to routinely seek data from the SWIFT network, which has operations in the United States, including a main computer hub in Manassas, Va. The subpoenas are secret and not reviewed by judges or grand juries, as are most criminal subpoenas.

SWIFT acknowledged yesterday in response to questions from the Los Angeles Times that it has provided data under subpoena since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, a striking leap in cooperation from international bankers who long resisted such law enforcement intrusions into the confidentiality of their communications. But SWIFT said in a statement that it has worked with U.S. officials to restrict the use of the data to terrorism investigations.

The program is part of the Bush administration's expansion of intelligence-gathering capabilities, which includes warrantless eavesdropping on the international phone calls of some U.S. citizens. Critics complain that these efforts are not subject to independent governmental reviews designed to prevent abuses and charge that they collide with privacy and consumer protection laws in the United States.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said the SWIFT program raises similar issues. "It boils down to a question of oversight, both internal and external. And in the current circumstances, it is hard to have confidence in the efficacy of their oversight," he said. "Their policy is, `Trust us,' and that may not be good enough anymore."

A former senior Treasury official expressed concern that the SWIFT program allows access to vast quantities of sensitive data that could be abused without safeguards. The official, who said he did not have independent knowledge of the program, questioned what becomes of the data, some of it presumably on innocent banking customers.

"How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?" the former official said. "And what do you do with the chaff?"

The effort also runs counter to the expectations of privacy and security that are sacrosanct in the worldwide banking community. SWIFT promotes its services largely by touting the network's security, and most of its customers are probably unaware that the U.S. government is regularly using subpoenas to review the private financial information.

U.S. officials, some of whom expressed surprise that the program had not previously been revealed by critics, acknowledged that it would be controversial in the financial community. "It is certainly not going to sit well in the world marketplace," said the former counterterrorism official. "It could very likely undermine the integrity of SWIFT."

Bush administration officials asked the Los Angeles Times not to publish information about the program, contending that disclosure could damage its effectiveness and that sufficient safeguards are in place to protect the public.

Dean Baquet, the editor of the Times, said, "We weighed the government's arguments carefully, but in the end we determined that it was in the public interest to publish information about the extraordinary reach of this program. It is part of the continuing national debate over the aggressive measures employed by the government."

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