Friday, June 30, 2006

Behind Bush's Fury, a Vow Made in 2001

The New York Times
Behind Bush's Fury, a Vow Made in 2001

WASHINGTON, June 28 — Ever since President Bush vowed days after the Sept. 11 attacks to "follow the money as a trail to the terrorists," the government has made no secret of its efforts to hunt down the bank accounts of Al Qaeda and its allies.

But that fact has not muted the fury of Mr. Bush, his top aides and many members of Congress at the decision last week by The New York Times and other newspapers to disclose a centerpiece of that hunt: the Treasury Department's search for clues in a vast database of financial transactions maintained by a Belgium-based banking consortium known as Swift.

Speaking at a fund-raising event in St. Louis for Senator Jim Talent, Mr. Bush made the news reports his central theme.

"This program has been a vital tool in the war on terror," Mr. Bush said. "Last week the details of this program appeared in the press."

Mr. Bush received a prolonged, standing ovation from the Republican crowd when he added, "There can be no excuse for anyone entrusted with vital intelligence to leak it — and no excuse for any newspaper to print it."

On Thursday, the House is expected to take up a Republican resolution supporting the tracking of financial transactions and condemning the publication of the existence of the program and details of how it works. The resolution says Congress "expects the cooperation of all news media organizations in protecting the lives of Americans and the capability of the government to identify, disrupt and capture terrorists by not disclosing classified intelligence programs." Democrats are proposing a variant that expresses support for the treasury program but omits the language about the news media.

The director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, has ordered an assessment of any damage to counterterrorism efforts from the disclosures, but the review is expected to take months, and its findings are likely to remain classified.

Experts on terror financing are divided in their views of the impact of the revelations. Some say the harm in last week's publications in The Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal may have been less in tipping off terrorists than in putting publicity-shy bankers in an uncomfortable spotlight.

"I would be surprised if terrorists didn't know that we were doing everything we can to track their financial transactions, since the administration has been very vocal about that fact," said William F. Wechsler, a former Treasury and National Security Council official who specialized in tracking terrorism financing.

But Mr. Wechsler said the disclosure might nonetheless hamper intelligence collection by making financial institutions resistant to requests for access to records.

"I wouldn't be surprised if these recent articles have made it more difficult to get cooperation from our friends in Europe, since it may make their cooperation with the U.S. less politically palatable," Mr. Wechsler said.

Though privacy advocates have denounced the examination of banking transactions, the Swift consortium has defended its cooperation with the counterterrorism program and has not indicated any intention to stop cooperating with the broad administrative subpoenas issued to obtain its data.

A former federal prosecutor who handled major terrorism cases, Andrew C. McCarthy, said he believed that the greatest harm from news reports about such classified programs was the message that Americans could not keep secrets.

"If foreign intelligence services think anything they tell us will end up in the newspapers, they'll stop sharing so much information," said Mr. McCarthy, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.

Mr. McCarthy said he thought the Swift disclosure might encourage terrorist plotters to stop moving money through the banking system, depriving the United States and its allies of a valuable window on their activities. "Methods they assumed were safe they now know are not so safe," he said.

But Bob Kerrey, a member of the 9/11 commission and former Democratic senator from Nebraska, took a different view, saying that if the news reports drive terrorists out of the banking system, that could actually help the counterterrorism cause.

"If we tell people who are potential criminals that we have a lot of police on the beat, that's a substantial deterrent," said Mr. Kerrey, now president of New School University. If terrorists decide it is too risky to move money through official channels, "that's very good, because it's much, much harder to move money in other ways," Mr. Kerrey said.

A State Department official, Anthony Wayne, made a parallel point in 2004 before Congress. "As we've made it more difficult for them to use the banking system," Mr. Wayne said, "they've been shifting to other less reliable and more cumbersome methods, such as cash couriers."

As such testimony suggests, government agencies have often trumpeted their successes in tracking terrorist funding. President Bush set the tone on Sept. 24, 2001, declaring, "We're putting banks and financial institutions around the world on notice — we will work with their governments, ask them to freeze or block terrorists' ability to access funds in foreign accounts."

Since then, the Treasury Department has produced dozens of news releases and public reports detailing its efforts. Though officials appear never to have mentioned the Swift program, they have repeatedly described their cooperation with financial networks to identify accounts held by people and organizations linked to terrorism.

Working with "our allies abroad and our partners in the private sector," an April news release said, "Treasury follows the terrorists' money trails aggressively, exploiting them for intelligence."

Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, convened a hearing in 2004 where Treasury officials described at length their efforts, assisted by financial institutions, to trace terrorists' money. But he has been among the most vehement critics of the disclosures about the Swift program, saying editors and reporters of The New York Times should be imprisoned for publishing government secrets.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. King said he saw no contradiction. "Obviously we wanted the terrorists to know we were trying to track them," Mr. King said. "But we didn't want them to know the details."