Why SWIFT Mattered

Jake Tapper had a great idea: he called former New Jersey Governor and co-chairman of the September 11 Commission on the telephone to ask why Kean was so convinced that the terrorist finance program carried out through SWIFT was important and should not have been blown by the New York and Los Angeles Times:

What I wanted to understand: what would terrorists and those who wish the US harm know now, with the Friday disclosure of the program, that they wouldn’t have already known from the first few weeks after 9/11 when President Bush announced that the administration would do everything it could to get all data from every bank around the world.

Kean said that when he was briefed by the Treasury Department on the program, “I was told very few people knew about this facility,” which provides transaction processing services for over 7,000 financial organizations located in 194 countries worldwide.

“I was told that very few financial houses in this country knew about it; it was not well known even by people in banking,” Kean said. “The terrorists didn’t know the financial transactions went through this one group. Treasury told me, this was a method of financial tracking that people didn’t understand, that nobody knew this was how things were done. Top-notch people in the US didn’t even know.”

“The second thing is that it took a long time to get this program set up. SWIFT is not US-controlled; we had to persuade them to cooperate, convince them that this was so important to the war on terrorism. It was a great coup when all these other countries agreed to go along.”

All of that work may now be undone by the fecklessness of our newspapers. The Belgian government announced today that it will investigate the SWIFT program:

The Belgian government says it will look into U.S. data mining of private financial records held by SWIFT — a Brussels-based global banking entity.

“We need to ask what are the legal frontiers in this case and whether it is right that a U.S. civil servant could look at private transactions without the approval of a Belgian judge,” government spokesman Didier Seus said Monday.

It appears likely that one way or another, SWIFT’s cooperation may come to an end. Of course, it may not matter since, now that they know about SWIFT, the terrorists presumably can figure out how to carry out their transactions without creating a record there.

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