What was lost: the terrorst finance tracking program

NPR’s Morning Edition today interviewed a former Administration official about the SWIFT program outed by the NY Times. The official explains the value of the program and laments the public disclosure of this anti-terrorist tool.

Read the brief interview in the extended section.

NPR’s STEVE INSKEEP: “To learn how the government used the SWIFT database to gather information on suspected terrorists, we called David Aufhauser. He was general counsel of the Treasury Department from 2001 to late 2003.”

FORMER TREASURY DEPARTMENT GENERAL COUNSEL DAVID AUFHAUSER: “The program had a dual use. One is to track money used to bank terror. But more importantly, the information provided by SWIFT was also used almost like a crystal ball. You would get some human intelligence or some intercept intelligence from other portions of the government about a potential terrorist action. And you’d try to establish whether the banking network and the banking information permitted you to paint a picture of the network of contacts that this person had. So it turned out to be very helpful not just in combating terrorist financing, but in trying to but in trying to prevent calamities.”

INSKEEP: “Were terrorist groups as far as you can tell using these international wire transfers that often, anyway?”

AUFHAUSER: “It’s probably wrong to say terrorist groups. People who might want to bank radical movements were using the wire transfers system. It’s the easiest way to move valuables across borders.”

INSKEEP: “In the months after September 11, lots of terrorist financing appeared to going through informal channels. The hawala system, as it’s called, where one person in Afghanistan telephones phones another person in Pakistan – or Miami for that matter – and, and money is transferred without a formal bank being involved. Doesn’t that limit both the effectiveness of the SWIFT program and the impact of its disclosure?”

AUFHAUSER: “You’re right, the hawala transfer system, which is the largest, really, informal international banking transfer system out of the third world is the most vexing problem, and you have to use other tools. Basically, you have to try to penetrate the sales that are in the hawalas, but that’s not to say that alternative means to transfer valuables across the border should not be pursued, and the SWIFT system is one such means.”

INSKEEP: “Maybe throw up a roadblock over the international banking system.”

AUFHAUSER: “You want to make things difficult to kill people. So if you diminish the opportunity to transfer currency that is intended to cause another calamity like 9/11, then you save lives.”

INSKEEP: “To the extent that you can, can you give an example of a transaction that would be of interest to the United States government and what the U.S. government would then do about it?”

AUFHAUSER: “Certainly, a transaction where you have a piece of human intelligence that tags somebody as a potential participant in a terrorist cell, if that information were then pinged against the SWIFT database, and identified dozens of people that that person had transacted business with. Or, for example, purchases that were made through wire transfers for bomb parts or chemical parts, you begin to build a picture of a real danger rather than just a suspicion.”

INSKEEP: “Did you notice al Qaeda adapting as you tried to adapt to what they were doing?”

AUFHAUSER: “Yeah, but I don’t think it was just to the money. Al Qaeda once had a central nervous system, and now it’s atomized, which has made it more difficult to police it. A little less important that we know what’s going across the borders because a lot of the terror is being financed through pedestrian criminal domestic activity. For example, the Madrid train bombing was financed through narcotics smuggling and through the smuggling of human beings. But that underscores a high priority for sharing national intelligence information with local police in a reciprocal way.”

INSKEEP: “So is the SWIFT program as important a tool as it once was?”

AUFHAUSER: “Yes, it’s all the more important that if we get small, few cells of information from those cells that suggests something may be amiss and somebody is up to the kind of mischief that could bring calamity to a city or a town, that we have some central data bank to rationalize that information. The SWIFT program represents the best of government, and I agree with the President’s statement that it is a shame that its utility has been diminished by the public disclosure.”

One Response to “What was lost: the terrorst finance tracking program”

  1. actus Says:

    Did he quote the swift website saying they participate with law enforcement?

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