The U.S. Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, which monitors suspected foreign terrorists through international monetary flows, came to light when the New York Times and other newspapers published details of the secret program, drawing strong condemnation from the Bush administration and hawkish congressional members.
Some of the administration's most vociferous supporters went so far as to accuse the Times of treason.
The story showed how Washington was poring over millions of transactions within the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), the premier messaging service used by banks around the world to issue international transfers.
The revelation came amidst a debate about the extent of the executive powers the Bush administration has amassed in the name of fighting terror after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon almost five years ago.
A series of disclosures of similar clandestine efforts has roiled privacy advocates both in the United States and overseas, who are concerned that the United States may be using its global influence to push other nations towards rights restrictions without enough oversight.
During Tuesday's hearing, Levey confirmed that not only Congress knew about the program but also members of the Group of 10 most industrialized countries, who consult and cooperate on economic, monetary and financial matters.
The Group of Ten is actually made up of 11 industrial countries; Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and the United States.
Senior officials from the Group of Ten usually meet once a year in connection with the autumn meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, where they have over the past five years called on international financial institutions to help monitor and disrupt suspected terrorist transfers.
"Members of the Congressional intelligence committees were briefed about this program, and our colleagues in the central banks of the G-10 countries were likewise informed," Levey told the hearing.
However, not all legislators were in the loop. "Many people in Congress who should have been briefed by the administration were not," complained Rep. Sue Kelly of New York, a Republican and chairwoman of the House Financial Services subcommittee on oversight. "What else is it that we don't know?"
She said she would seek an investigation of the program by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Privacy activists have also been alarmed at the news. Privacy International has said the Belgium-based banking consortium violated European Union privacy laws when it supplied Washington with the records of millions of bank transactions.
The London-based group filed complaints with data protection and privacy regulators in 33 European countries against SWIFT, contending that it acted "without regard to legal process under Data Protection law."
The complaints warn that the data could be used by U.S. authorities for a range of unrelated activities, even espionage.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed lawsuits related to another warrantless spying program in the U.S., also expressed concern about SWIFT. "Privacy rights are being violated on both sides of the Atlantic -- and we welcome a European investigation to get to the bottom of this," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project.
On Friday, the European Parliament adopted a resolution demanding explanations from EU governments and institutions regarding their complicity in the SWIFT transfers of financial data to the U.S.
But Levey denied that the program violated privacy rules and said searches were targeted at suspected terrorist financing.
He said his staff was not engaged in "data mining" or trolling through the accounts provided by SWIFT, which serves 7,800 financial institutions worldwide, to fish for other irregularities like tax evasion or economic espionage.
"The program contains multiple, overlapping layers of governmental and independent controls to assure that the data is only searched for terrorism purposes and that all data is properly handled," he said.
"I have on my staff a group of intelligence analysts who spend their days in a secure room poring over information to unmask the key funders and facilitators of terrorist groups."
While acknowledging that the overall program was in the public domain well before the news reports, he said that the disclosure by the New York Times and other U.S. newspapers is likely to complicate efforts by the U.S. and its allies to disrupt the money flows to terrorist organizations, as it gave specific details about the SWIFT operation.
"This disclosure compromised one of our most valuable programs and will only make our efforts to track terrorist financing -- and to prevent terrorist attacks -- harder," he said.
The official faced almost no questions about concerns by privacy advocates in the wake of the disclosure from his congressional questioners. In fact, the program got strong backing from the Congressional leaders despite some grievances that Congress was not fully briefed.
"We are at war," said House Financial Services Chairman Michael G. Oxley, who on Jun. 30 sponsored a non-binding measure to condemn leaks of classified information to the public.
"I commend the efforts of the Bush administration in the financial war against terror. We depend on classified programs and classified information in order to successfully prosecute that war," he said.
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July 11, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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