Despite appeals from the Bush Administration as well as several current and former government officials — both Democrat and Republican — the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times decided to break a story today that could have far-reaching effects on America’s War on Terror.
The story concerns a covert intelligence program, the “Swift operation,” that enables US intelligence agencies to access and examine the banking transactions of suspected terrorists.
Swift — an acronym for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication — forms the epicenter of the global banking industry, and oversees an estimated $6 trillion of inter-bank transfers on a daily basis. The Swift operation, however, does not allow US intelligence officials to gain unfettered access to Swift’s records:
The program is limited . . . to tracing transactions of people suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda. . . . The records mostly involve wire transfers and other methods of moving money overseas and into and out of the United States. Most routine financial transactions confined to this country are not in the database.
The program was put in place shortly after the 9/11 attacks and is viewed as a vital tool for choking off terrorist financing. As the NY Times points out:
The 9/11 hijackers had helped finance their plot by moving money through banks. Nine of the hijackers, for instance, funneled money from Europe and the Middle East to SunTrust bank accounts in Florida. Some of the $130,000 they received was wired by people overseas with known links to Al Qaeda.
Though withheld from the public, knowledge of the banking program was not restricted to the Bush Administration. In fact, the 9/11 commission was apprised of the program as were several members of Congress. In terms of the program’s legality, the undersecretary at the Treasury Department, Stuart Levey, assures that no laws have been broken:
“[The program] has provided us with a unique and powerful window into the operations of terrorist networks and is, without doubt, a legal and proper use of our authorities . . .”
Levey added that multiple safeguards were in place to protect against unwarranted searches of Americans’ records.
In terms of efficacy, the Swift operation is credited for the capture of leading al-Qaeda terrorist, Riduan Isamuddin, or “Hambali.” Hambali, is believed to have been the mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombing, which claimed the lives of 202 people while injuring hundreds more.
More importantly, the Swift operation has been especially useful for identifying terrorists and terrorist cells within the United States. The program led to the capture and successful prosecution of Uzair Paracha, a Pakistani national, who laundered $200,000 for an al-Qaeda operative in his home country.
By breaking this story, the NY and LA Times have exposed a classified and effective operation that goes to the heart of America’s national security. According to government officials, the Swift operation is the largest effort yet at tracing terrorist financing, which helps to explain the Administration’s — and other officials’ — desire to keep it secret, especially from the enemy.
Bill Keller, executive editor of the NY Times, thinks differently:
“We have listened closely to the administration’s arguments for withholding this information, and given them the most serious and respectful consideration. We remain convinced that the administration’s extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest.”
Doyle McManus, the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau chief, gave a similar response:
“It’s a tough call; it was not a decision made lightly. The key issue here is whether the government has shown that there are adequate safeguards in these programs to give American citizens confidence that information that should remain private is being protected.”
President Bush has since expressed his concern that the New York Times has once again chosen to expose a classified program at the expense of American security.
This latest, forceful declassification of an intelligence program by members of the media comes at a time when homegrown Jihadist networks have been uncovered in multiple countries. Just yesterday, a group of 7 would-be terrorists — self-described as a “black Muslim” group — were arrested in Miami for plotting to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago and an FBI building in Miami (one of the 7 suspects was arrested in Atlanta). A similar terror network was broken up in Canada only weeks before. Indeed, programs like the Swift operation have never been more vital to our security.
Still, the Swift operation is sure to spark outrage across America and will likely be viewed as evidence of President Bush invading privacy rights. To be sure, wherever individual liberties are threatened, Americans must fight tooth and nail to preserve them. In this case, however, the only liberty that was at stake was our right to life.
All will agree that safeguards are needed to protect Americans against those people who wish to do us harm. Americans should expect that some of those safeguards will fall short of aesthetically pleasing. However, that alone does not outweigh their benefits nor does it amount to an invasion of privacy.
The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times committed a real disservice to the American people today by reporting on this story. One can only hope that other covert operations have been effected so as to replace the now useless Swift operation.