This morning, media reports disclosed the U.S. Government’s use of the SWIFT network in furtherance of its terrorist financing initiative. My initial reaction is one of pride and despair. As a former government official, I was involved in this program. On one hand, I’m proud of the notable work performed and what has been accomplished. On the other hand, I’m disappointed and concerned that the media felt compelled to run another story that undermines National Security in the fight on terrorism by disrupting and diminishing an important investigative tool.
By way of background, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) provides electronic messaging services that direct financial transactions worth trillions of dollars a day among around 7,800 financial institutions throughout the world. As detailed in the various media reports, the Treasury Department has been receiving SWIFT information since shortly after 9/11. Personally, I’m astounded that the program has remained confidential this long. It was an innovative and remarkable program. As custodian of the program, Treasury provided the SWIFT information to the CIA, who managed the program. The FBI, in conjunction with the CIA and Treasury, exploited financial information to thwart terrorists, exposing them to areas of financial vulnerability.
For my colleagues who have been skeptical of the U.S. Government’s efforts in terrorist financing, this program, the cooperation with other financial providers, such as First Data Corporation and Western Union, contributed significantly to the A- grade given the Government for Terrorist Financing by the 9/11 Commission. Many of the successes achieved in terrorist financing have not reached the public domain. The anonymity afforded, up until this point, has provided the interagency community the opportunity to continue to exploit terrorists through their financial vulnerabilities.
As more information becomes known and as subject matter experts and the media assess the program, they should not lose sight of the fact that the program was strictly monitored and audited. The field of information actually reviewed was quite minimal in comparison to the universe of SWIFT records that exist. SWIFT records were provided to the Treasury Department in accordance with Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) subpoenas. This initiative was operated in accordance to the law. Before rushing to judgment, critics should appreciate the level of scrutiny and accountability that was put in place to ensure SWIFT information was used solely for terrorist investigative purposes. In addition, assertions that the information reviewed did not lead to positive results would be wrong.
As this situation unfolds, the question should again be posed as to why the media felt compelled to publish a story that undermines National Security by exposing a viable investigative technique to terrorists. A productive and important investigative mechanism has been disrupted and greatly diminished. Once again, why is the media more seemingly concerned about the need to inform the American public about terrorist intelligence operations that involve public records than they are about the adverse impact the report has on National Security?
Not to end on a troubling note, its time to applaud the interagency community, in this case, particularly the Treasury Department, CIA and FBI for outstanding investigative initiative with respect to the execution of the SWIFT program. The interagency cooperation and team work was unwavering throughout the last five years. Many successes were quietly achieved by a group of true unsung heroes. Well done guys!