The Bush administration has been quietly tracking people suspected of bankrolling terrorism through a secret program that gives the government access to a massive data base of international financial transactions.
Treasury Department officials said they used broad subpoenas to collect the financial records from an international system known as Swift. Stuart Levey, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, called the subpoenas “a legal and proper use of our authorities.”
“Since immediately following 9/11, the American government has taken every legal measure to prevent another attack on our country,” Dana Perino, deputy White House press secretary, said. “One of the most important tools in the fight against terror is our ability to choke off funds for the terrorists.”
Under the program, U.S. counterterrorism analysts could query Swift’s financial data base looking for information on activities by suspected terrorists as part of specific terrorism investigations, a Treasury Department official said. They would do so by plugging in a name or names, the official said.
The program involved both the CIA and the Treasury Department.
Swift, or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is a cooperative based in Belgium that handles financial message traffic from 7,800 financial institutions in more than 200 countries.
The service, which routes more than 11 million messages each day, mostly captures information on wire transfers and other methods of moving money in and out of the United States. It doesn’t execute these money transfers. The service generally doesn’t detect private, individual transactions in the United States, such as withdrawals from an ATM or bank deposits. It is aimed mostly at international transfers.
'A unique and powerful window'
The administration defended use of the program, saying it plays a vital role in its efforts to identify terrorist financiers.
“Our subpoena of terrorist-related records from Swift has provided us with a unique and powerful window into the operations of terrorist networks,” Levey said.
The existence of the program was first reported Thursday night on the Web sites of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal.
While confirming the newspaper reports, both Levey and Perino expressed concern that disclosure of the program could undermine efforts to track terrorism-related activities.
“We know the terrorists pay attention to our strategy to fight them, and now have another piece of the puzzle of how we are fighting them,” Perino said.
The decision to publish was “a tough call; it was not a decision made lightly,” said Doyle McManus, the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau chief.
Treasury Department officials spent 90 minutes Thursday meeting with the newspaper’s reporters, stressing the legality of the program and urging the paper to not publish a story on the program, McManus said in a telephone interview.
Swift acknowledged that it complied with the government’s subpoenas but said the government’s requests were for limited slices of data.
The group said it negotiated with Treasury over the scope and oversight of the subpoenas.
“Through this process, Swift received significant protections and assurances as to the purpose, confidentiality, oversight and control of the limited sets of data produced under the subpoenas,” Swift said in a statement. “Independent audit controls provide additional assurance that these protections are fully complied with.”
'Not a fishing expedition'
Treasury Secretary John Snow suggested the program was limited in scope and wasn’t an effort to snoop on law-abiding Americans.
“It is not a fishing expedition but rather a sharp harpoon aimed at the heart of terrorist activity,” Snow said in a statement.
The financial messages routed over Swift’s network carry information including the full name and address of both the sender and receiver, U.S. officials said.
Disclosure of the program follows intense controversy over President Bush’s directive ordering the National Security Agency to monitor — without court approval — the calls and e-mails of Americans when one party is overseas and terrorism is suspected. That program, which also began shortly after 9/11, was disclosed by The New York Times.
The administration has not disclosed the terror-tracking program but has spoken publicly about its efforts to disrupt terror fundraising efforts.
The New York Times and Los Angeles Times quoted their editors as defending their decision to publish despite being asked by the Bush administration to withhold publication.
Bill Keller, The New York Times’ executive editor, said it considered the administration’s arguments but in the end decided to publish. “We remain convinced that the administration’s extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use it may be, is a matter of public interest.”
Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles 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.”
Some in Congress were briefed on the operations, including members of the House Intelligence Committee. Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., declined to comment.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had been briefed about the program and understood it had had “a direct role in keeping our country safe,” said his spokeswoman, Amy Call.