UNITED STATES—The latest furor over the Bush administration's handling of the War on Terror has many screaming, "Big Brother is watching!" The New York Times reported on Friday, June 23, that the government is monitoring certain U.S. bank records. This follows the recent uproar over the warrantless operation of the NSA listening in on private telephone conversations of some U.S. citizens thought to be connected with terrorism.
It can be argued that the government should have obtained warrants when the NSA monitored the phone calls. It is possible that the Justice Department has enough lawyers to cover the necessary paperwork to stay on the legal side. Either way, the reasoning for the program is sound. It may be one of the reasons America has not experienced another terrorist attack since 9/11.
The CIA, with the help of the Treasury Department, is running the secret financial surveillance program and is limiting its watch on those believed to be connected to Al Qaeda. So far, the results have been good as they have managed to capture a few wanted terrorists as a result of the operation.
After Friday's NYT article, President George W. Bush, republican congressmen and conservative talk show hosts lambasted the Times. They blew up in a fury unseen since President Clinton's brief interlude with Monica Lewinsky. They claimed that the publicity of the clandestine surveillance program would ruin any of its future accomplishments. If they are right, the NYT article could harm our government's efforts in the war on terror. A few questions over the program are in order.
First, is the surveillance program needed? Looking at history, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky were financed so they could overthrow Russia's provisional government in 1917. Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler were backed so they could take over the leadership of their respective countries. Government leadership changes and terrorism require money and if the paper trail is closely monitored, it is possible to slow down or to stop impending doom. The same idea applies to today's situation with the terrorists. So, President Bush's program stands on solid ground and is very much needed.
Second, is the surveillance program a true secret? The United Nations published a report last year called "Unlocking Credit: 2005 Report." It outlined a plan to combat terrorism at the financial level, as they stated that terrorism is usually connected with money laundering, transnational organized crime and the international drug trade. Al Qaeda reputedly traffics in diamonds and heroin to finance their terrorist activities. So how do they launder their money?
SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication is allegedly used by terrorists. Wire transfers from the Belgium cooperative totals about $6 trillion a day between roughly 8,000 banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other financial institutions. Their activities were monitored by the CIA for clues, with some success.
To further gauge the secrecy of the program requires looking back as early as 1989. That year, the Group of Seven formed the Financial Action Task Force, which included several recommendations, such as the freezing and confiscating of terrorist's assets, the reporting of suspicious activity relating to terrorists and the criminalizing of financing terrorists and money laundering. In 1999, they enacted the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism. In 2001, the UN adopted Resolution 1373 which established the Counter-Terrorism Committee to start action against terrorists. Finally, last year they published their completed plan of action for all to see. The program's outline has been available for anyone who wants to know, as early as 15 years ago.
In addition, President Bush, shortly after 9/11, vowed to "follow the money as a trail to the terrorists." (NYT June 29, 2006, "Behind Bush's Fury, a Vow Made in 2001") He also said, "We're putting banks and financial institutions around the world on notice—we will work with their governments, ask them to freeze or block terrorists' ability to access funds in foreign accounts." Since then the Treasury Department has issued several notices detailing its efforts.
In conclusion, has the Times's reporting hampered the program's efficiency? Hardly. The proverbial cat has already been let out of the bag. It is likely the terrorists will do little to change their methods. What is the alternative, besides trusting a courier with a suitcase full of bills? Known terrorists and their accomplices may have trouble crossing borders with satchels of money in order to reach their destination. In addition, the courier may get greedy and steal some of the stash.
The terrorists' choices are quite narrow. The United States will still be able to follow the money trail. Transfers may become easier to spot, especially if some terrorists panic and their wires go awry or they increase them in order to throw their pursuers off the trail. The surveillance operation still works.
President Bush, Republican congressmen and conservative talk show pundits need not worry about the leaking of the CIA's secret financial surveillance program. It has not been a secret for years for anyone digging up the right sources. If the terrorists newly catch wind of the program, it should still prove effective as there are few good alternatives to the SWIFT wiring operation.
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