A secret program that allowed U.S. officials to examine hundreds of thousands of private banking records from around the world in search of terrorist ties has been "absolutely essential" to protecting the country from further attacks, Vice President Cheney said yesterday.
Outgoing Treasury Secretary John W. Snow said that the program, in effect since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is the thing "I'm proudest of" in his tenure and insisted that strong safeguards protect the privacy of individual Americans. "It's really government at its best," Snow said at a news conference. "It's responsible government. It's effective government."
The comments by Cheney, Snow and other senior Bush administration officials were made the day after news organizations exposed the surveillance effort, in which the Treasury Department has subpoenaed data from an international banking cooperative that serves as a messaging service for overseas monetary transfers.
The revelations -- which Cheney and other officials said undermined an important counterterrorism tool -- prompted renewed criticism from Democrats and civil liberties groups that the administration is operating outside legal and congressional controls.
"It would be very disturbing to me to find out that this program represents yet another unilateral action and further abuse of executive authority without proper safeguards and oversight," said Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), the senior Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. Others described the program as an invasion of privacy and called for hearings on possible violations of domestic and international law.
But far from giving ground, the administration mounted a muscular defense of the program, dispatching its principal Treasury Department supervisor to explain how it works. The tactic was in sharp contrast to the administration's refusal to provide details about other secret programs that had been revealed earlier by news organizations, including the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretaps of overseas calls made by U.S. citizens and residents.
At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow acknowledged that the program relies on an expansive interpretation of Treasury's powers that is unusual. "Well, so was September 11," he said.
The program falls well within the president's executive authority, Tony Snow asserted, and President Bush did not need to seek congressional authorization, although Snow said legislative oversight committees "know all about it."
'No one ever asked us'
There was some disagreement yesterday, however, over who had been briefed on the program and when. The White House referred reporters to Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), who said he had been informed about the secret effort four years ago, when he was named chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Treasury Department. "I think it is a tremendous tool," Bond said.
Although the chairmen and senior Democrats on the two intelligence committees apparently were also briefed when the program began, there have been changes in the intelligence panels' leadership since 2001. The full committees -- and the current chairmen and senior Democrats in some cases -- learned of the program in May, when CIA and Treasury Department officials offered new briefings after learning that the New York Times was preparing an article on it, a Treasury official said.
Some lawmakers on the several committees that oversee the Treasury Department appeared to have been left in the dark. "No one ever called us, no one ever asked us. Nothing," said a spokesman for Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the House Financial Services subcommittee in charge of international monetary policy and technology.
U.S. counterterrorism officials obtained the financial records from an international banking cooperative called the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications. SWIFT, as it is known, is owned and controlled by nearly 8,000 commercial banks in more than 20 countries that use its services.
SWIFT is headquartered in Brussels, but much of its operations are based in the United States, where knowledge of the government's secret access to its data was not widespread. Of officials at three large U.S. banks who agreed to speak about the program, only one said his institution had knowledge of it before yesterday.
"People around here are fine with this," said the official at a major New York bank, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It was done right." Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey said yesterday that the central bank governors of major industrialized nations had also been briefed, although he did not say when that occurred.
Disappointment over program's exposure
In a lengthy news conference and in several television appearances, Levey described exposure of the program as "a great disappointment to me," saying the disclosures "fundamentally undermine and degrade an important source of information."
"The only beneficiaries of that are the terrorists," he said. "If people are sending money to help al-Qaeda, we want to know about it. The American people expect us to know about it."
SWIFT data "enabled us . . . to identify terror suspects that we didn't know, as well as to find addresses and other identifiers for those terrorists that we did know about. It provided key links in our investigations of al-Qaeda and other deadly terrorist groups," he said.
Levey declined to identify any terrorist apprehended as a result of the SWIFT data, but Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said the information had helped capture Nurjaman Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali, an Indonesian described by Bush as "one of the world's most lethal terrorists" after his 2004 arrest in connection with the Bali bombing that killed 202 people the previous year.
"It's provided information on domestic terror cells," Snow said. "It helped identify a Brooklyn man convicted on terrorism-related charges last year."
SWIFT's extensive U.S. operations enabled Treasury to issue what the organization called "compulsory" subpoenas in this country, officials said yesterday. But Levey insisted that stringent safeguards were put in place to protect banking privacy and to ensure that U.S. intelligence had access only to the records of persons whose possible terrorist connections it could prove.
"We started with really narrowly crafted subpoenas all tied to terrorism," Treasury Secretary Snow said. But because SWIFT "didn't have the ability to extract the particular information from their broad database . . . they said, 'We'll give you all the data.' " Once a suspect was identified, U.S. officials had to present SWIFT with evidence of terrorist connections -- in the form of a name on a watch list, or a classified cable -- and were allowed to access information tied only to that name.
SWIFT auditors and Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., an independent firm contracted by the U.S. government, supervised all the searches, Levey said. "The audit reports have been issued periodically since the beginning of the program, and they have found consistently that the government is not abusing this data, that we are using it for counterterrorism purposes.
"There was one instance noted at one point in an audit that there had been one search that was done that was, in our view, inappropriate. . . . The person who conducted that search is no longer allowed to work on this program. And no information from any search that's even been questioned has ever been disseminated," Levey said. When information appeared that indicated a non-terrorist crime, such as money laundering or drug trafficking, he said the source of the information was "sanitized" before it was passed to other law enforcement agencies.
SWIFT manages data from millions of wire transfers and other monetary transactions each day. "We've done a large number of searches" since the program began, Levey said. "I don't know the exact number but it's . . . at least tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of searches."
Because SWIFT largely deals with financial data transfers across international borders, Levey said that U.S. transactions would be subject to surveillance only if they were to or from other countries.
A lawsuit filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Chicago accused SWIFT of violating the privacy rights of Americans by disclosing private financial information to the government, Bloomberg News reported. The plaintiff named in the suit, Ian Walker, was described as a D.C. resident, although no further information was made available. The suit seeks statutory, compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of every American who made a domestic or international financial transaction after Sept. 11, 2001.
The program was criticized yesterday by privacy advocates and civil liberties groups. Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, called it "contrary to the fundamental American value of privacy. . . . How many other secret spying programs has the Bush administration enacted without Congress, the courts or the public knowing?"
Bond dismissed any suggestion that many Americans are concerned that the administration is compromising their privacy. "They are not Big Brother techniques. They are permitted by law. And the people I serve are glad we are doing everything we can to make another 9/11 less likely," he said.
Staff writers Paul Blustein, Michael A. Fletcher, Dafna Linzer, Terence O'Hara and Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.