Bank Records Secretly Tapped
Friday, June 23, 2006
The Bush administration, relying on a presidential declaration of emergency, has secretly been tapping into a vast global database of confidential financial transactions for nearly five years, according to U.S. government and industry officials.
Initiated shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the surveillance program has used a broad new interpretation of the Treasury Department's administrative powers to bypass traditional banking privacy protections. It has swept in large volumes of international money transfers, including many made by U.S. citizens and residents, in an effort to track the locations, identities and activities of suspected terrorists.
Current and former counterterrorism officials said the program works in parallel with the previously reported surveillance of international telephone calls, faxes and e-mails by the National Security Agency, which has eavesdropped without warrants on more than 5,000 Americans suspected of terrorist links. Together with a hundredfold expansion of the FBI's use of "national security letters" to obtain communications and banking records, the secret NSA and Treasury programs have built unprecedented government databases of private transactions, most of them involving people who prove irrelevant to terrorism investigators.
Stuart Levey, undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in an interview last night that the newly disclosed program -- the existence of which the government sought to conceal -- has used the agency's powers of administrative subpoena to compel an international banking consortium to open its records. The Brussels-based cooperative, known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, links about 7,800 banks and brokerages and handles billions of transactions a year.
Terrorism investigators had sought access to SWIFT's database since the 1990s, but other government and industry authorities balked at the potential blow to confidence in the banking system. After the 2001 attacks, President Bush overrode those objections and invoked his powers under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to "investigate, regulate or prohibit" any foreign financial transaction linked to "an unusual and extraordinary threat."
Levey and other officials emphasized that the government has confined its financial surveillance to legitimate terrorism investigations and tightly targeted searches.
After identifying a suspect, Levey said, "you can do a search, and you can determine whom he sent money to, and who sent money to him."
"The way the SWIFT data works, you would have all kinds of concrete information -- addresses, phone numbers, real names, account numbers, a lot of stuff we can really work with, the kind of actionable information that government officials can really follow up on," Levey said.
He spoke about the program after it became clear the New York Times was planning to publish an article about it. The Times and other news organizations posted articles online last night.
Levey maintained that the government has "put into place very robust controls to make sure we are only using this information for anti-terrorism purposes."
He added: "We can only search the data we receive in furtherance of a terrorism lead. In fact, the analysts who have access to the data can't even access the database unless they type in the search they want to do and articulate why it's connected to terrorism."
The program is "on rock-solid legal ground," Levey said, and is based on the IEEPA, which he said "specifically gives us the authority to conduct this type of investigation if there is an emergency declared by the president."