India Intelligence Report

   US Subpoenaed International Money Transfer Records



  • US Government subpoenaed records of international money transfers

  • Papers were asked not to publish but did in public interest

  • Previous disclosures showed illegal monitoring of phone and email conversations

US Treasury Department gained sweeping access to international banking records as part of a secret program to choke off financial support for terrorism that US Government sources say is "legal and proper use of our authorities." Treasury Department officials say they used broad subpoenas to collect the financial records from an international system known as "Swift."

Deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino said immediately following the 9/11 incident to leverage “every legal measure to prevent another attack on our country.", said on Thursday evening. Perino said that "One of the most important tools in the fight against terror is our ability to choke off funds for the terrorists."

Swift, or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is a cooperative based in Belgium that handles financial message traffic from 7,800 financial institutions in more than 200 countries. The service captures information on wire transfers and other methods of moving money in and out of the United States. The service generally does not track private, individual transactions in the United States, such as withdrawals from an ATM or bank deposits. It is aimed mostly at international transfers. The administration defended use of the program, saying it plays a vital role in its efforts to identify terrorist financiers.

Swift acknowledged that it complied with the government's subpoenas but pointed out that the government's requests were for limited slices of data. The group said it negotiated with Treasury over the scope and oversight of the subpoenas. In a statement, Swift said "Through this process, Swift received significant protections and assurances as to the purpose, confidentiality, oversight and control of the limited sets of data produced under the subpoenas."

Treasury Secretary John Snow clarified "It is not a data-mining or trolling through the private financial records of Americans" and "It is not a fishing expedition but rather a sharp harpoon aimed at the heart of terrorist activity." As soon as the program was exposed by The New York Times, Perino said “The President is concerned that once again The New York Times has chosen to expose a classified program that is working to protect our citizens.” The Bush administration clumsily tried to quash the story, arguing that it would destroy a useful intelligence tool and asked the papers to withhold the story. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times declined saying that it was in the public’s interest to know.

This program follows previous disclosures that the US Administration has ordered the National Security Agency to monitor -- without court approval -- the calls and e-mails of Americans when one party is overseas and terrorism is suspected. While the Administration broadly talked about its efforts to disrupt terror fundraising, it has not talked about this program specifically. It is not that people suspect that the US Government is up to negative stuff but the propriety and constitutionality of it. Moreover, the propensity for misuse or abuse has heightened fears that the US Government may be crossing the fine line separating protecting its citizens and impinging on their privacy.

Some in the US Congress have been briefed on the operations, including members of the House Intelligence Committee.