The storm that isn’t over the leak that wasn’t

The revelation that ever since 9/11 the United States has been tracking international banking data to follow terrorist money is easily the most bizarre of the recent news leak controversies.

For starters, it appeared to be not a leak but a gusher, spouting from news spigots coast to coast. It sprung first on the night of June 23 on the Web site of The New York Times, in a long and detailed report. Within hours, it was gushing out as well on the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times Web sites, and then it appeared in the old fashioned way, in ink on newsprint, on our doorsteps (or perhaps in our rosebushes).

It didn’t take long for the moanings and wailings to gush forth, as predictably as the leg swing that follows the knee tap. From the bloggers and talk-showoffs of the left came accusations that our privacy has been massively violated — yet again — by the government. From their counterparts on the right came claims that the terrorists had been handed a vital gift by a secret-telling, enemy-helping news media. Then, President Bush and Vice President Cheney — who run the Federal Sieve — led a coordinated burst of outrage not at the leakers, but the messengers — their new enemy, The New York Times. “Disgraceful” story. Caused “great harm.” America needs a time out.

Let’s begin with the first revelation that tipped off al Qaeda about a coordinated plan that would use international banking data to track its terror-funding efforts. It was the disclosure that the Bush administration had established a Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center (FTAT) to identify and investigate the international financial transactions of al Qaeda and other terrorists. One U.S. official was quoted as saying: “It will bring together representatives of the intelligence, law enforcement and financial regulatory agencies to accomplish two goals: to follow the money as a trail to the terrorists, to follow their money so we can find out where they are; and to freeze the money to disrupt their actions.”

That official wasn’t one of those anonymous leakers — it was Bush himself, back when he was at the top of his game and had all the world with him, on Sept. 24, 2001, just 13 days after al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon. He announced the first of a series of measures that made clear international bankers were cooperating to track al Qaeda’s funding.

Fast-forward: New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller explained to readers in an e-mail on the paper’s Web site how he reached what he called the “difficult decision” to publish the June 23, 2006 story detailing how the United States is using wire transfer data provided (in response to warrants) by a banking group based in Belgium and known by its acronym “Swift.” Keller said that Bush administration officials repeatedly asked the Times not to print the report and that the prime reason given by Treasury officials was that it might jeopardize future cooperation by the international bankers. The Bush team may be right, but it is hard to imagine bankers risking massive public wrath by reversing years of policy in which they handed over data in compliance with warrants from governments.

Bush administration officials, continuing a pattern, opted not to obtain court-ordered warrants, but rather just wrote their own “administrative” warrants, under a national security provision. In a rather unsettling and unsatisfactory move, administration officials outsourced our privacy security, paying Booz Allen-Hamilton Inc. to assure the data was used only for terror-combating purposes.

We have endured the painful revelations of the September 11 Commission and others about how the CIA, FBI, NSA and others had info that could have given us enough early warning to have prevented the 9/11 attacks. Given that record, the only sort of scoop that would have been a shocker in June 2006 would have been a report that international bank data was not being used and that the Bush administration really wasn’t following the money of al Qaeda after all. That would have shocked us all _ and Osama bin Laden too. There seems to be little that evildoers could have learned from the latest report that they didn’t already know.

Which brings us to the bottom line: Despite the unsettling imperfections and outsourced privacy policing, it has been good and probably vital that Bush’s team pursued this untraditional method of following al Qaeda’s money.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)