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White House NYT Bashers: Hypocrites

Since 9/11, nobody — and I mean nobody — has done more report­ing on the gov­ern­men­t’s attempts to track ter­ror­ists through their data trails than the Nation­al Jour­nal’s Shane Har­ris. (The guy ate Spam and knocked back Tequizas with John Poindex­ter, for chris­sake!) So I could­n’t be more psy­ched to wel­come Shane to the Defense Tech fam­i­ly. This is the first of what I hope will be a long string of posts for the site.cheney_grimace.jpg

Bush admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials have been lin­ing up to con­demn The New York Times for reveal­ing a pro­gram to track finan­cial trans­ac­tions as part of the war on ter­ror­ism. But if the Times’ rev­e­la­tion about a pro­gram to mon­i­tor inter­na­tion­al exchanges is so dam­ag­ing, why has the admin­is­tra­tion been chat­ter­ing about efforts to mon­i­tor domes­tic trans­ac­tions for near­ly five years?

Short­ly after the 9/11 attacks, many jour­nal­ists — includ­ing this one — were briefed by U.S. Cus­toms offi­cials on Oper­a­tion Green Quest, an effort to roll up ter­ror­ist financiers by mon­i­tor­ing, among oth­er things, “sus­pi­cious” bank trans­fers and ancient mon­ey lend­ing pro­grams favored by peo­ple of Mid­dle East­ern descent.

I inter­viewed Mar­cy For­man, direc­tor of Green Quest, at her Wash­ing­ton offices in Decem­ber 2001, when I was a writer for Gov­ern­ment Exec­u­tive mag­a­zine. Our meet­ing was sanc­tioned by Cus­toms’ pub­lic affairs office, and came at a time when the White House was eager to talk about all the work fed­er­al agen­cies were doing to hunt down ter­ror­ists. For­man told me the kinds of peo­ple, trans­ac­tions, even loca­tions that the gov­ern­ment was tar­get­ing. (These are details, it should be not­ed, that the recent Times piece did not reveal.) Among the poten­tial­ly sen­si­tive items For­man told me, which were pub­lished:

“Oper­a­tion Green Quest is focus­ing on the infor­mal, large­ly paper­less form of mon­ey exchange known as hawala, which is Ara­bic for ‘to change.’”

“Few under­cov­er agents can pen­e­trate Mid­dle East­ern com­mu­ni­ties and mon­ey laun­der­ing rings because they look like out­siders and don’t speak the lan­guage…. As a result, Green Quest has to be more clever, by set­ting traps on the Inter­net and work­ing to flush cur­ren­cy traf­fick­ers out of their hid­ing places.”

“Trea­sury and FBI inves­ti­ga­tors have iden­ti­fied hawala as a means by which the alleged Sept. 11 ter­ror­ists may have received mon­ey from over­seas.”

“Green Quest inves­ti­ga­tors, who’ve spent their careers dis­man­tling mon­ey laun­der­ing rack­ets, were blind­sided by the exis­tence of the sys­tem. ‘Most of us could­n’t spell hawala’ before Sept. 11,’ For­man said.”

“The agen­cies’ [involved in Green Quest] coop­er­a­tive efforts have recent­ly cul­mi­nat­ed in raids of alleged mon­ey laun­der­ing oper­a­tions that aid sus­pect­ed ter­ror­ist net­works.”

“Green Quest also wants to low­er the thresh­old at which bank deposits and elec­tron­ic funds trans­fers must be doc­u­ment­ed. Drop­ping the ceil­ing from $10,000 to $750, For­man said, may force mon­ey traf­fick­ers to try to get their cash out of the coun­try by hand. They would then be sub­ject to cap­ture by a beefed-up cadre of Cus­toms Ser­vice offi­cers at bor­der cross­ings, air­ports and sea­ports.”

Green Quest was only one of the administration’s efforts to com­bat ter­ror­ist financ­ing which offi­cials dis­cussed pub­licly. More than two years after 9/11, fed­er­al offi­cials tes­ti­fied before a con­gres­sion­al field hear­ing in Mia­mi and “detailed efforts to stop the ille­gal financ­ing of ter­ror­ist net­works.” A senior advis­er for the Trea­sury Depart­ment “named sev­er­al ini­tia­tives, such as the Finan­cial Crimes Enforce­ment Net­work (Fin­CEN), which is devel­op­ing tech­nol­o­gy to let finan­cial insti­tu­tions report sus­pi­cious trans­ac­tions more eas­i­ly and quick­ly.” The advis­er also named the sys­tem Fin­CEN was devel­op­ing to man­age a data­base built to search finan­cial trans­ac­tions. And he said the depart­ment was work­ing direct­ly with finan­cial insti­tu­tions to help them “devel­op soft­ware to bet­ter iden­ti­fy poten­tial ter­ror­ist-financ­ing activ­i­ties.”

These details, pro­vid­ed by Cus­toms and Trea­sury offi­cials, undoubt­ed­ly gave ter­ror­ists some insight into how the U.S. gov­ern­ment was track­ing them, and what inves­ti­ga­tors knew about ter­ror­ism financ­ing. These offi­cials weren’t whistleblowers—they were sanc­tioned by the admin­is­tra­tion to dis­pense this infor­ma­tion.

In the wake of the lat­est Times rev­e­la­tion, Rep. Peter King of New York, the Repub­li­can chair­man of the House Home­land Secu­ri­ty Com­mit­tee, wants the attor­ney gen­er­al to inves­ti­gate and pros­e­cute reporters and edi­tors of the Times for “aid­ing the cause of our ene­mies.” What King and oth­ers crit­ics haven’t addressed is how the pub­li­ca­tion of spe­cif­ic details, over the past half decade, about the tech­niques the gov­ern­ment employ­ees to track ter­ror­ists’ mon­ey doesn’t also aid their cause.

Shane Har­ris

UPDATE 06/29/9:34 AM: Intel Dump takes a very dif­fer­ent point of view. Mean­while, Bob Ker­rey — and even, to some extent, Peter King — won­der the Times’ dis­clo­sure actu­al­ly helps coun­tert­er­ror efforts.

Bob Ker­rey, a mem­ber of the 9/11 com­mis­sion, [said] 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...”

Since [9/11], 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...

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.”


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