[JURIST] US Central Intelligence Agency [official website] counterterrorism agents secretly reviewed financial records of Americans listed in an international database after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks [JURIST news archive], focusing on people with links to al Qaeda, according to reports by the New York Times late Thursday and the Los Angeles Times Friday. The database, from a Belgian cooperative named Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) [corporate website; Wikipedia backgrounder] central to the global banking industry, primarily contains international wire transfers, and excludes most routine banking transactions. The tracking program is run by the CIA and overseen by the US Treasury Department [official website]. Stuart Levey, Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, has defended the program's legality and other officials have said the SWIFT database is exempt from American laws because SWIFT is considered a messaging service, and not actually a bank or financial institution. Other officials involved in the program have expressed skepticism, however, calling the legality of the program a "gray area."
Treasury Secretary John Snow promptly issued a statement [press release] defending the Department's Terrorist Finance Tracking Program
Let me be clear what this program is, and what it is not. It is an essential tool in the war on terror, based on appropriate legal authorities with effective oversight and safeguards. It is not "data mining", or trolling through the private financial records of Americans. It is not a "fishing expedition", but rather a sharp harpoon aimed at the heart of terrorist activity. That fact makes today's disclosure so regrettable, because the public dissemination of our sources and methods of fighting terrorists not only harms national security but also degrades the government's efforts to prevent terrorist activity in the future.
The SWIFT program reportedly lead to the capture of the alleged mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings [BBC backgrounder], Riduan Isamuddin Hambali [Wikipedia profile]. SWIFT said that it simply responded to compulsory subpoenas [press release] for limited data sets, and made every effort to preserve the confidentiality of data. Reuters has more.