In the scrum over the New York Times’ decision to publish its story last Friday about the government’s monitoring of international money transfers through the SWIFT group, critics point to two cases in which the government claims the program snared terrorists and demonstrated its effectiveness.
The first is the capture of Hambali, the terrorist behind a radical group responsible for a series of bombings in Southeast Asia in the early part of the decade, and who, most famously, blew up a nightclub in Bali in 2002. He’s currently being held in an undisclosed location by the U.S. The second case is the arrest of Uzair Paracha, a Pakastani man who was arrested in New York after trying to launder $200,000 for al Qaeda in 2003.
But for all the secretiveness of the program, and its successes, it’s worth noting that the government isn’t providing any examples of success post-2003. One possible reason why is found on page 277 of Ron Suskind’s new book The One Percent Doctrine, where he writes that in the latter part of 2003, “[t]he carefully constructed global network of sigint and what can be called finint, or financial intelligence, started to go quiet.”
In short, al Qaeda, and its affiliates and imitators, stopped leaving electronic footprints. It started slowly, but then became distinct and clear, a definable trend. They were going underground.
… Eventually, and not surprisingly, our opponents figured it out. It was a matter, really, of deduction. Enough people get caught and a view of which activities they had in common provides clues as to how they may have been identified and apprehended.
… The al Qaeda playbook, employed by what was left of the network, its affiliates and imitators, started to stress the necessity of using couriers to carry cash and hand-delivered letters. This slowed the pace of operations, if not their scale, and that was, indeed, a victory.
This new reliance on couriers back up what CJR Daily reported on Tuesday, and it isn’t to say that the SWIFT program didn’t produce results — it did — but that five years into the “war on terror,” the terrorists have caught on to some of our methods.
And in the back and forth over whether or not the Times should be brought up on charges, it’s worthwhile to point out that the Times’ Eric Lichtblau offered an intriguing sneak peak at a similar program back in December, 2004, in an article about a new Department of Homeland Security program that would scour financial transactions: “The Department of Homeland Security has begun experimenting with a wide-ranging computer database that allows investigators to match financial transactions against a list of some 250,000 people and firms with suspected ties to terrorist financing, drug trafficking, money laundering and other financial crimes.”
Lichtblau also hinted — broadly — about a year and a half before the government confirmed it that monitoring financial transactions helped catch Hambali. “In early 2002, for instance, World-Check added to its high-risk list a terror suspect in Southeast Asia who went by the name of Hambali. Months later, the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control added Hambali to its own list of ‘banned’ foreigners. Hambali, captured in Thailand last year, is in American custody and is accused of organizing two deadly nightclub attacks in Bali in October 2002.”
Lichtblau wrote that the program, which was still being tested, “gives investigators what amounts to an enormous global watch list to track possible financial crimes at American border crossings, banks and other financial institutions.”
Sounds familiar, yet we don’t recall any big deal being made of it then. So why now?
Could it be because Lichtblau’s 2004 piece came immediately after the presidential election, whereas his 2006 piece that has kicked up such a furor comes right in the middle of fevered campaigning for the mid-term elections — campaigning which features plenty of Republican incumbents said to be running scared and looking for an issue, any issue, to divert attention from Iraq and the president’s wobbly approval ratings?
Naw. Must be something else.