Treasury tracks terror financing

In pursuit of suspected terrorists, the Treasury Department conducts searches of selected international financial transactions transmitted through an organization that provides most of the world's secure financial messaging, senior Treasury officials said today.

The Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, based on intelligence leads, carefully targets financial transactions of suspected terrorists, said Treasury secretary John Snow, after published reports disclosed the program.

It is an essential tool in the war on terror, based on appropriate legal authorization with effective oversight and controls, he told reporters at a briefing today.

'Following these financial flows, we've been able to locate terrorist properties and financiers, and bring terrorists to justice or thwart their plans. Terrorists may have heard of us following the money, but they didn't know we were using the Swift information,' Snow said.

Treasury subpoenas the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications based in Brussels, Belgium, for information on targeted financial transactions between U.S. and foreign financial institutions. Known by its acronym Swift, the industry-owned cooperative provides secure, standardized messaging services and interface software to over 7,800 financial institutions worldwide, the group says on it Web site at www.swift.com.

Swift accounts for more than 80 percent of the world's financial messaging traffic, said Stuart Levey, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. Swift transmits few U.S. domestic transactions.

'We've had a number of terrorist investigations that have ended successfully, or attacks averted, and this program has played a vital role,' Levey said.

The searches are not data mining, or trolling through the private financial records of Americans, Snow said.

'This program allows us to do individual searches on individual targets by name in relation to [an] existing investigation. This is a look for connections to a particular entity, a very targeted search capability,' Levey said.

Snow called the disclosure 'regrettable,' because public dissemination of sources and methods of fighting terrorists hampers the government's efforts to prevent terrorist activity.

'These flows we get access to don't lie. They tell a story. They lead us to the terrorists. Making it easier to get to the terrorists and thwarting the terrorists makes Americans and the world safer,' he said.

Appropriate members of Congress are aware of the program, and the 9/11 commission gave Treasury high grades for interagency financing efforts because of this program, Levey said. Booz Allen Hamilton of McLean, Va., is the program's outside auditor.

'Audits have found consistently that government is not abusing this data,' he said.

Auditors identified only one inappropriate search, and it resulted in separating the person from the program and not disseminating the information. Treasury has conducted from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousand of searches, Levey said. When Swift has raised questions about searches, Treasury has provided information to satisfy them. Treasury shares the information it obtains with relevant agencies in government, he said.

Treasury has seen an increase in casual sources of money transfers, such as hawalas and cash couriers, in addition to a continued large number of transactions through SWIFT's targeted searches.

'Just because there is a trend toward one way of moving money doesn't mean they don't do it other ways,' Levey said.

For domestic financing, Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network tracks suspicious domestic transactions under the Bank Secrecy and Patriot acts for terrorist financing and money laundering.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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