The BS over the reporting on the international banking surveillance

Sunday, July 02, 2006 at 03:39 PM

So after a short delay in responding to the news reports about the program to track terrorists through the international banking entity known as SWIFT, the right got together and decided to adopt its usual political posturing on the issue.  Direct and indirect claims of treason issue forth from Bush, Cheney, both Snows (Tony & Jack), and frothing heads on too many radio and television shows to count.

Even good old Oliver North has chimed in on this theme.  Just today I watched both Bill Bennett and Hugh Hewitt say with straight faces that there's no doubt that disclosure of the program has made it easier for terrorists to attack us.  As I predicted earlier,  these people are implicitly pushing a domestic version of Cheney's "1%" rule to determine when the U.S. will act preemptively.  The version of the rule being thrown around in the furor over the reporting on the international banking program is that U.S. media should agree not to report on a program, however questionable its legality, however potentially harmful to the civil rights that the founding fathers thought necessary to preserve freedom, if there is any chance of the reporting making it harder to stop terrorists.  The spookiest parts of this, of course, are that:

  1. Whether divulging a program's existence makes it harder to stop terrorists is inherently unknowable.  You have to take the word of people with a vested interest in preventing publication.

  2. This isn't a "war" in any sense of what war has historically meant; it's open-ended, against vague and shifting groups, which makes it impossible to tell when it is "over."  Accordingly, the 1% rule would theoretically operate to keep executive power secret, even if known to the media, for the foreseeable future.  What president is going to voluntarily renounce the power to prevent the media from publishing info harmful to the president?

  3. The rule would insulate the federal government, especially the president, from all public scrutiny.  And nothing good grows in the dark except some mushrooms.

I'm not going to write several thousand words about all the evidence (of which there is plenty) that the entire world knew that international banking records were being monitored to track terrorist financing, including many public acknowledgments of that fact by Bush administration officials, and that there had previously been many public acknowledgments that the terrorist organizations were already relying less and less on formal banking to transfer funds; you can check out this Media Matters piece on it.  But take a look at what a few publicly available publications said about it:

1. The Council on Foreign Relations published this in April, two months before the NY Times piece

What are some of the difficulties with tracking down terrorist financiers?
The greatest difficulty is that terrorist networks have stayed aware of governments' efforts to stymie their activities and adjust their operations accordingly....Terrorists have increasingly relied on illegal activities, like smuggling or counterfeiting, to generate revenue that is difficult to track through the financial system. Terrorists have also begun to rely more on cash, leaving less of a paper trail. According to Napoleoni, much of the funding for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda organization in Iraq is brought into the country by couriers carrying cash. The July 2005 attacks in London were also funded entirely by cash, which Napoleoni says is untraceable.

2. Way back in 2002, a Foreign Press Center briefing by Jimmy Gurule, Under Secretary of Treasury for Enforcement, included this (emphasis added):

I'd like to thank you for the invitation extended me by the Foreign Press Center to briefly comment on the U.S. government strategy to starve terrorists of funds, a strategy that was announced by the president immediately after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland that took place on September 11th.
[The President] directed the United States Department of the Treasury, under the leadership of Secretary Paul O'Neill, to lead the war on terrorist financing, to disrupt and dismantle terrorist financial networks. No less than the military campaign, the financial war has required careful planning, domestic and international coalition building, and I'm going to speak in a moment about the international coalition that we have developed, that we've worked towards developing, again in close working relationship with our allies, to dismantle terrorist financial networks. And, as with the military campaign that we witnessed in Afghanistan, the campaign against terrorist financing has achieved results, and impressive results.
We have developed a comprehensive strategy to identify, disrupt and dismantle terrorist financial networks. The strategy is threefold.

 First, we are applying technology, intelligence -- we're using the full capabilities of our intelligence communities, criminal investigative resources, and regulations against financial institutions to locate and freeze the assets of terrorists wherever they may hide; that means both domestically and internationally.

Second, we are attacking the terrorist financial infrastructure, their formal and informal underground methods for transferring funds across borders and between terrorist cells, whether through banks, businesses, hawalas, diverted charities, or innumerable other means.

Third, we are using our diplomatic resources and regional and multilateral engagements to ensure international cooperation, collaboration, and capability in dismantling terrorist financial networks.
I would like to comment on the international alliances, the international coordination. As I stated, in order for the U.S. government strategy against terrorist financing to be successful, it depends largely upon the cooperation of our international allies. And I'm here to say that the cooperation to date has been strong and, I believe, unprecedented, certainly in the area of financial crimes, financial investigations.
U.S. government officials and Swiss government officials signed a memorandum of understanding to enhance our working relationship with the Swiss to investigate, criminally, terrorist financing. We agreed at that signing ceremony, that involved Attorney General Ashcroft, involved Deputy Secretary Ken Dam from the Treasury Department, and involved Swiss Attorney General Valentin Roschacher -- the memorandum of understanding authorizes the United States, the Treasury Department, to send agents, criminal investigators from its Operation Green Quest to Bern, Switzerland, to work shoulder to shoulder with Swiss criminal investigators investigating al Qaeda and those responsible for the heinous attacks of September 11th. It also authorizes the FBI's Financial Review Group to send agents to work with Bern Swiss law enforcement officials. And likewise, in turn, it authorizes the Swiss to send investigators here to the United States to work hand in hand in a very close, coordinated way with Treasury and FBI financial criminal investigators.

3.  In August of 2004, Stuart A. Levey, Under Secretary Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, testified before congress that:

C. The Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence -- Enhancing Treasury's Contribution

The Congress and the President have given the Treasury Department the responsibility to safeguard the integrity of the U.S. and international financial systems from abuse by terrorists, rogue states, money launderers, and criminals. Treasury - as the United States' Finance Ministry - is well situated to accomplish this mission given its role in both the domestic and international financial systems. Treasury has unique relationships in the international community, including with Finance Ministries, Central Banks, financial intelligence units, and international financial institutions, as well as with the private sector.

To safeguard the financial systems both at home and abroad, the Treasury Department draws upon several capabilities:
International Initiatives: Treasury is part of and has access to an extensive international network of Finance Ministries and Finance Ministry-related bodies such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and various FATF-Style Regional Bodies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the G7, and various regional multilateral development banks. In addition, FinCEN is the critical facilitator for the international relationships among financial intelligence units organized through the Egmont Group.

That we are monitoring international banking data to identify likely terrorist financing was one badly kept secret, huh?  Up until the Times and the other papers (including the Wall St. Journal, whose editorial page now excoriates the Times) published the stories about SWIFT, the U.S. government was the entity most vocal about its efforts to track international financing.  Until they were offered a political target of opportunity, they couldn't wait to tell people about their efforts to follow international banking records.  It made them look good, like they were doing something.

What the Times and other papers did last week was to reveal not the existence of the program, but the fact that it operated outside congress and real warrant oversight.  So there is little doubt that the Times story's real damage was, once again, to the Bush administration by revealing yet another in an unending string of programs which carry out "searches"  without any semblance of constitutional protections such as warrants.  There is just as little doubt that, in the mind of Karl Rove and the current tyrant wannabees, this disclosure offered up a tremendous political opportunity: demonize the conservative bogeyman (the Times and the media in general), whip up the conservative base which had begun to crack in the face of multiple Bush fiascoes, and attempt once again to paint all concern for the civil rights that protect us from tyranny as, instead, aiding tyranny.

Does it work?  Well, the dean of library services at the University of the Incarnate Word, a private Catholic university, publicly canceled the library's subscription to the NY Times in protest of the newspaper's sin of reporting on the international banking program.  The fact that the university quickly reinstated the subscription apparently after protest from other library staff, doesn't take away from the fact that the dean was obviously co-opted by the Bush administration's propaganda blitz.  In fact, in announcing reinstatement of the subscription, the dean specifically left open the possibility of canceling it again after conferring with library staff.

There's only one medicine that can defeat this blatant opportunism: an informed and involved public committed to real freedom and democracy.  Come November, we'll get a pretty good read on whether we have that kind of public, or the kind of public that ushers tyranny into the house, offers it a meal, and pledges to protect tyranny from all enemies if tyranny will just make them less scared.