THE TREASURY Department's just-disclosed program of searching records of overseas bank transfers may provoke outraged comparisons to the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance and data-mining of telephone call records. At least if news reports and government statements concerning the revelations are correct, however, this program is far less troubling. As with all revelations concerning the secretive Bush administration, you have to worry about what you don't know. So far, however, it seems like exactly the sort of aggressive tactic the government should be taking in the war on terrorism.
For one thing, it appears to be legal. The government is receiving large volumes of data detailing financial transfers from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a Belgium-based consortium that acts as a kind of messenger service for banks around the world, electronically notifying banks of transactions other banks are attempting to complete. The government, if it develops suspicions about a person, can search the system for any transactions that person may have engaged in. While customer banking data are generally private under federal law, the statute does not appear to cover the society, which isn't a bank and doesn't have individual customers. What's more, a different law gives the president broad powers in a national emergency situation to investigate, or even prohibit, certain financial transactions.
It is also the sort of information the government should be examining in any effort to frustrate terrorist financing and develop leads about who is funding whom. While such data can certainly be misused, records of overseas financial transfers are less sensitive from a privacy point of view than, say, the contents of phone calls or e-mails. And some safeguards appear to be in place to make sure the information is not misused. The department receives the material under a subpoena, Treasury officials emphasized yesterday. SWIFT's representatives audit all searches, as does an outside auditing firm. Unlike a data-mining operation, where analysts try to identify high-risk individuals using patterns and trends embedded in huge data sets, analysts here are searching for transactions involving individuals about whom they already have suspicions.
Because the administration is so secretive, it is essential that Congress appropriately inform itself of the details and contours of the program. The administration only briefed the full intelligence committees recently, apparently after the program appeared likely to become public. These committees need to make sure that the legal basis for it is sound, as it appears; that the program is appropriately designed and tailored; that the internal controls are rigorous and the uses of the data are properly constrained. So far, however, there is little reason to think it poses a great civil liberties problem.