It would have to be an unusually slow-witted terrorist who was unaware that the United States might be trying to peer into his bank account. After all, as White House press secretary Tony Snow pointed out, the Bush administration said publicly after 9/11 that it was going after the terrorists’ finances and sources of funding.
What the public learned last week was just how massive, how aggressive and how close to permanent the program to track international financial transactions is. A Treasury official said the administration conducted “at least tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of searches,” with one signal success, pinpointing the mastermind of the bombing in Bali that killed 202. And now, instead of wiring money around the globe, Snow says the terrorists are forced to hand-carry “wads of cash” across borders.
Disclosure of the program set off alarms among privacy advocates and civil libertarians. But if the program is run as the administration says it is _ and that’s not always a given with this White House _ the banking surveillance is quite a reasonable and worthwhile security precaution.
The program involves an obscure but essential entity, the Brussels-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunications, Swift for short, a clearinghouse for $6 trillion in transactions a day among some 8,000 banks worldwide.
The Bush administration insists the program does not violate any U.S. or international laws, is tightly targeted to searches only where there is a specific terrorist link, obtains administration subpoenas when required, was cleared with the Fed and other international central banks and has such safeguards as independent outside auditing as well as monitoring by Swift itself. And, it says, there have been no complaints of abuse or violated privacy.
But as the White House is prone to do, some members of Congress were informed of the program’s existence but apparently only in casual, barebones fashion. Detailed, substantive briefings were offered only when it became apparent the story would become public.
Despite the Bush administration’s mighty efforts, nothing remains secret forever. This program was known to many foreign banking and government officials. Its existence is nothing the terrorists couldn’t have guessed. The public and Congress should know about a huge, U.S. government program of banking surveillance, one clearly intended to be permanent. And after NSA wiretaps, the FBI’s use of national security letters and the data mining of domestic bank records, it does make you wonder: What else aren’t they telling us?
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)