National Security Be Damned

Customer buys copy of The New York Times at newsstand, 6-5-03
This column was written by Heather Mac Donald.
By now it's undeniable: The New York Times is a national security threat. So drunk is it on its own power and so antagonistic to the Bush administration that it will expose every classified anti-terror program it finds out about, no matter how legal the program, how carefully crafted to safeguard civil liberties, or how vital to protecting American lives.

The Times' latest revelation of a national security secret appeared on last Friday's front page — where no al Qaeda operative could possibly miss it. Under the deliberately sensational headline, "Bank Data Sifted in Secret by U.S. to Block Terror," the Times blows the cover on a highly targeted program to locate terrorist financing networks. According to the report, since 9/11, the Bush administration has obtained information about terror suspects' international financial transactions from a Belgian clearinghouse of international money transfers.

The procedure for obtaining that information could not be more solicitous of privacy and the rule of law: Agents are only allowed to seek information based on intelligence tying specific individuals to al Qaeda; they must document the intelligence behind every search request and maintain an electronic record of every search; and, in an inspired civil liberties innovation that would undoubtedly garner kudos from the Times had a Democratic administration devised it, a board of independent auditors from banks reviews the subpoena requests to make sure that only terror suspects' transactions are traced. Any use of the data for criminal investigations into drug trafficking, say, or tax fraud is banned. The administration briefed congressional leaders and the 9/11 Commission about the system.

There is nothing about this program that exudes even a whiff of illegality. The Supreme Court has squarely held that bank records are not constitutionally protected private information. The government may obtain them without seeking a warrant from a court, because the bank depositor has already revealed his transactions to his bank — or, in the case of the present program, to a whole slew of banks that participate in the complicated international wire transfers overseen by the Belgian clearinghouse known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift. To get specific information about individual terror suspects, intelligence agents prepare an administrative subpoena, which is issued after extensive internal agency review. The government does not monitor a terror suspect's international wire transfers in real time; the records of his transactions are delivered weeks later. And Americans' routine financial transactions, such as ATM withdrawals or domestic banking, lie completely outside of the Swift database.

The administration strongly urged The New York Times not to expose this classified program, and for good reason. According to the Times itself, the program has proven vital in hunting down international killers. The Indonesian terrorist Hambali, who orchestrated the Bali resort bombings in 2002, was captured through the Swift program; a Brooklyn man who laundered $200,000 for al Qaeda through a Karachi bank was tracked via the program. The Wall Street Journal adds that the July 7, 2005, London subway bombings were fruitfully investigated through the Swift initiative and that a facilitator of Iraqi terrorism has been apprehended because of it.

A coterie of former and current Democratic and Republican leaders also begged the Times not to jeopardize this highly successful counterterrorism program, but the Times knew better. In a smug prepared statement, executive editor Bill Keller emotes: "We remain convinced that the administration's extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest."

Now that the Times has blown the cover on this terror-tracking initiative, sophisticated terrorists will figure out how to evade it, according to the Treasury's top counterterrorism official, Stuart Levey, speaking to The Wall Street Journal. The lifeblood of international terrorism — cash — will once again flow undetected.

The bottom line is this: No classified secret necessary to fight terrorism is safe once the Times hears of it, at least as long as the Bush administration is in power. The Times justifies its national security breaches by the mere hypothetical possibility of abuse — without providing any evidence that this financial tracking program, or any other classified anti-terror initiative that it has revealed, actually has been abused. To the contrary, the paper reports that one employee was taken off the Swift program for conducting a search that did not obviously fall within the guidelines.