By Barton Gellman, Paul Blustein and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
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."
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.