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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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