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Bank Records Secretly Tapped
In addition, the administration informed major central banks, including the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, of the program. "They were all briefed so they could exercise appropriate oversight," Levey said. "We have kept it confidential but made sure the appropriate people knew about it," including members of Congress involved in intelligence matters, he said.
The White House complained last night that the disclosure could hurt anti-terrorism activities.
"We are disappointed that once again the New York Times has chosen to expose a classified program that is working to protect Americans," spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "We know that al-Qaeda watches for any clue as to how we are fighting the war on terrorism and then they adapt, which increases the challenge to our intelligence and law enforcement officials."
Levey said it was no secret that investigators tried to follow terrorist money flows, but had been "trying to keep confidential . . . precisely how we do that." Because SWIFT is not a well-known source of financial information, "we're very disappointed that this source has now been revealed, because it will make our job much more difficult."
Levey's boss, outgoing Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, underlined those arguments in a statement the department issued late yesterday. Treasury's Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, he said, is an essential tool in the war on terror that has helped government officials "locate operatives and their financiers, chart terrorist networks, help bring them to justice, and save lives."
"It is not 'data mining,' or trolling through the private financial records of Americans. It is not a 'fishing expedition,' but rather a sharp harpoon aimed at the heart of terrorist activity," he said.
Levey declined to discuss instances in which the data gleaned from SWIFT had aided the crackdown on terrorism. He said that information is classified but added he could confirm that the information has been used to "confirm the identity of a major Iraqi terrorist facilitator."
Asked whether any high-ranking administration officials had expressed reservations about the program, Levey said: "Not that I've ever heard. This is a program which, to my knowledge, has been universally embraced and praised."
Intelligence analysts from the CIA and the FBI, working with Levey's office, have been poring over the financial transactions for the past several years in search of more links to al-Qaeda operatives. Officials said investigators now seek financial data on individuals and companies whose names first appear in documents, intercepted communications and other evidence gathered by intelligence agencies around the world.
"You can't type in a random name of someone" and search his data, said one intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The program only works for names already within the intelligence system that were collected elsewhere and are identified as being part of an open investigation."
That was not the case when the program began in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, when Bush signed Executive Order 13224 going after al-Qaeda's finances. Officials said far more information was collected early on, often on people who had nothing to do with al-Qaeda but whose Muslim names or businesses were similar to those used by suspected members of al-Qaeda. That method flooded the intelligence community with reams of material that was laborious to go through and repeatedly misled investigators.
"It has narrowed over time as our expertise has increased," one official said in describing a "higher bar" for searches that now depend on intelligence collected elsewhere.
Intelligence officials were eager to distance this program from the NSA's eavesdropping operation, saying repeatedly that the technology employed does not allow for the broad sweeps the NSA can conduct.
In a statement, SWIFT said it "responded to compulsory subpoenas for limited sets of data from the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the United States Department of the Treasury. Our fundamental principle has been to preserve the confidentiality of our users' data while complying with the lawful obligations in countries where we operate. Striking that balance has guided SWIFT through this process with the United States Department of the Treasury."
Staff writers Terence O'Hara and Peter Baker contributed to this report.