The American Spectator published an article Wednesday thoroughly refuting claims by the New York Times that counterterrorism information revealed in its June 23 exposé was common knowledge. Moreover, to discourage it and the Los Angeles Times from publishing these reports, both were informed of three ongoing investigations using information from SWIFT:
According to Treasury and Justice Department officials familiar with the briefings their senior leadership undertook with editors and reporters from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, the media outlets were told that their reports on the SWIFT financial tracking system presented risks for three ongoing terrorism financing investigations. Despite this information, both papers chose to move forward with their stories.
"We didn't give them specifics, just general information about regions where the investigations were ongoing, terrorist organizations that we believed were being assisted. These were off the record meetings set up to dissuade them from reporting on SWIFT, and we thought the pressing nature of the investigations might sway them, but they didn't," says a Treasury official.
Without giving away vital secrets, these briefings were detailed enough to convince both news organizations of the effectiveness of this program:
In the briefings, Treasury and Justice Department officials laid out the challenges law enforcement and intelligence agencies have had with the traditional and still popular hawala Muslim "banking" system, which is dependent more on interpersonal dealings than on institutions and has been prevalent in parts of the world that doesn't understand the Islamic rules. "Since 9/11 we've gotten a lot better at monitoring hawalas," says a Justice Department official. "That success has forced a lot of the money into the institutional or more traditional banking systems. And that's where SWIFT has been particularly helpful."
The article continued:
"We thought that once the reporters and editors understood that one, these were not warrantless searches, and two, that this was a successful program that had netted real bad guys, and three, that it was a program that was helping us with current, ongoing cases, they would agree to hold off or just not do a story," says the U.S. Treasury official. "But it became clear that nothing we said was going sway them. Whomever they were talking to, whoever was leaking the stuff, had them sold on this story."
The Spectator also discussed who the leakers might be:
To that end, the Justice Department has quietly and unofficially begun looking into possible sources for the leak. "We don't think it's someone currently employed by the government or involved in law enforcement or the intelligence community," says another Justice source. "That stuff about 'current and former' sources just doesn't wash. No one currently working on terrorism investigations that use SWIFT data would want to leak this or see it leaked by others. We think we're looking at fairly high-ranking, former officials who want to make life difficult for us and what we do for whatever reasons."
As for these revelations not harming the program:
Of course, these newspapers probably know more about such things than Treasury officials, members of the Justice Department, current and former members of Congress, members of the 9/11 Commission, and the Adminstration.
"Let's put it this way, some of these folks probably aren't using their banks anymore, so who knows," says the Treasury source. "Using banks for transfers was easier for them to move funds faster, especially if it was in a part of the world that was heavily Muslim and they thought the money wouldn't draw as much attention there. But groups like al Qaeda aren't about to put expediency before their goals of destroying us, so they will do what they have to do to protect their financing and their operatives. We know that, we just wish the New York Times and Los Angeles Times cared, too."