The Wall Street Journal reports today that the international wire service, SWIFT, has been secretly assisting the US Treasure Department "ever since 9/11". Evidently SWIFT, based in Belgium, maintains a data center in the US thus making it open to US subpoenas.
Last night, in a statement, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow called the program an "essential tool" for fighting terror and said it had effective oversight and safeguards. "It is not 'data mining,' or trolling through the private financial records of Americans," he said. "It is not a 'fishing expedition,' but rather a sharp harpoon aimed at the heart of terrorist activity."
He went on:
Mr. Levey said safeguards include regular outside audits. Intelligence analysts are allowed to search data only for specific individuals or groups suspected of terrorist involvement, he said, and the data isn't subjected to controversial data-mining techniques such as pattern-seeking algorithms.
It strikes me as very uncharacteristic that in a situation where the Federal government has access to a rich mine of information that they are taking such extraordinary measures to be sensitive to US privacy concerns. Why now? Why with SWIFT and not with ATT? And why not in the case of warrant-less wire taps?
It sure seems like following the money is a great and completely justifiable means of countering terrorism. Why wouldn't you use pattern seeking algorithms? While you are at it why wouldn't you look for money laundering and tax evasion schemes? And by the way, if Treasury has had the legal power since 1977, when the International Emergency Economic Powers Act was passed, why have they not invoked it in the War on Drugs?
The Treasury Department is going to be doing a lot of spin control. My prediction: Sometime in the next month the Official Secrets Act will be invoked to curtail any investigation into possible abuses of SWIFT data mining.