Did the United Nations Expose the SWIFT Program?

A few days ago, we challenged liberals to provide us with evidence that the terrorists already knew about the administration’s use of SWIFT to track terrorist financing, as the New York Times now claims, so that the Times’ exposure of that program did not damage national security. The most coherent response we got was from Greg Sargent of New York Magazine, who writes at the American Prospect’s media and politics blog:

I’d like to direct your attention to this report that was done by the UN Al Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Group in December of 2002. The report has long been readily accessible to the public at the UN’s web site. You can read it here:


Paragraph 31 of this report says the following:

The settlement of international transactions is usually handled through correspondent banking relationships or large-value message and payment systems, such as the SWIFT, Fedwire or CHIPS systems in the United States of America. Such international clearance centres are critical to processing international banking transactions and are rich with payment information. The United States has begun to apply new monitoring techniques to spot and verify suspicious transactions. The Group recommends the adoption of similar mechanisms by other countries.

As you can see, this paragraph states quite clearly that the United States has “begun to apply new monitoring techniques to spot and verify suspicious transactions,” and that settlement of such transactions are handled through outfits “such as the SWIFT.” The suggestion of this paragraph is obvious: the United States has begun to monitor, or intends to start monitoring, transactions processed through SWIFT and other similar outfits. This report was completed in 2002.

Many other liberals have cited this U.N. report for the proposition that the SWIFT program was common knowledge before the Times exposed it. Let’s examine that claim and see whether it can withstand scrutiny.

First, in order to show that the Times’ report was “old news” that could not have damaged national security, liberals would have to demonstrate that the terrorists knew three things: 1) that SWIFT’s international headquarters in Brussels maintains a database that includes information on the vast majority of all international banking transactions; 2) that the United States had persuaded the foreign bankers who operate SWIFT’s Brussels headquarters (and perhaps their governments) to give the U.S. access to that database; and 3) that the nature of the records in the SWIFT database is such as to allow terrorists and their financiers to be tracked and identified.

Does the U.N. report, which can be accessed here, satisfy these elements? Clearly not, for a number of reasons.

First, there is no evidence whatsoever that any terrorist–let alone all terrorists–ever read the U.N. report. The fact that the report was on the U.N.’s web site where it could be found, after the fact, by liberals searching for information about SWIFT does not demonstrate that any terrorists knew about it. So on its face, the suggested “proof” is inadequate.

Second, if we’re going to assume the terrorists read that particular U.N. report, let’s assume they read it carefully. Paragraph 31 does not say that the United States had gained access to the data maintained by SWIFT’s international headquarters in Brussels. On the contrary, the paragraph refers specifically to “systems in the United States of America” which were being monitored by the U.S. These systems included Fedwire, which is operated by the Federal Reserve Board, CHIPS, an American bank-owned alternative to Fedwire, and the SWIFT operation “in the United States,” which is located in New York. Paragraph 31 nowhere hints that SWIFT’s Brussels headquarters had a massive database of international money transfers, or that the U.S. had gotten access to it.

This is perhaps why the government of Belgium–which is much more apt than a group of terrorists to read United Nations reports–had no idea, prior to the Times’ report, that SWIFT’s Brussels headquarters had allowed the U.S. government access to its database. When the Belgian government learned that last month, it launched an investigation,

Third, let’s assume the terrorists read not just paragraph 31, but the entire U.N. report. If they did so, they would find no indication that SWIFT’s headquarters contained the mother lode of international financial data, to which the U.S. had already gained access. On the contrary, paragraph 90 of the report says that “it has become more difficult to trace and identify [al Qaeda’s] assets.” If the terrorists actually read the report, which is highly unlikely, they would have gained false comfort from it.

Fourth, we know for sure that U.N. report of December 2002 didn’t blow the secrecy of the SWIFT program, because that program achieved its most notable success eight months later with the capture of Hambali. Further, we know that even as of last month the program’s cover hadn’t been blown, because it was described as instrumental in several investigations that were ongoing when the Times printed the illegally leaked information about the program. So as of last month, the terrorists hadn’t yet changed whatever behavior allowed them to be tracked by SWIFT. Now that they know how we’ve been tracking them, they can investigate the SWIFT system, reverse-engineer the transactions that led to the capture of Hambali and other terrorists, and, in all likelihood, negate the benefits of this highly successful program.

Liberals’ reliance on the 2002 U.N. report is typical of how they so often argue: seize on a word here and a phrase there, make wild assumptions, ignore the obvious, and assert the incredible in the face of all evidence to the contrary.


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