By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Following the money

I honestly don’t know what to think about this week’s revelation that the Bush administration has been tracking international financial transactions. My first thought was that it seems less abusive than the secret NSA no-warrant wiretapping program, but that there’s much we don’t know. A few observations:

  • Surely the terrorists already knew they were being wiretapped. The Bush administration’s only wrinkle with the NSA program was in breaking U.S. law. The financial program, though, strikes me as potentially something that the terrorists didn’t know about. Consequently, I find myself wondering whether the New York Times and other news organizations exercised good judgment by revealing it.
  • Financial privacy does not seem to be all that firmly established, and has apparently not been recognized by the Supreme Court — although Congress did pass a law protecting it. Thus it appears that, once again, the White House broke the law when it didn’t really have to.
  • The financial program may have actually led to the capture of a significant Al Qaeda terrorist, which is more — a lot more — than can be said for the indiscriminate NSA program.

Given my handwringing, I was interested to see The Opinionator point (sub. req.) to this post at Homeland Security Watch. After making some of the same points I was thinking about, security analyst Christian Beckner writes:

Based on the content of the story, I’m glad that this program exists — and although I usually err on the side of openness and disclosure, this is one program that I would’ve been fine to see remained cloaked in secrecy. This story could cause would-be terror financiers to rethink their money movement activities; and if SWIFT [the international consortium supplying the data] were to pull back from cooperation with the US government because of any controversy generated by this story (it’s still too early to judge the political fallout from it, if any), then that would be a real shame.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has shown such contempt for civil liberties that it’s possible we can no longer recognize a proper exercise of government authority when we see it. And yes, it’s also possible that the newly revealed program is a lot more abusive of ordinary citizens than it appears at first glance. (Surely the foolishness in Miami can’t be overlooked when assessing the White House’s motives and competence.)

For the moment, we should all learn as much as we can and not get too far out in front of this.

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  1. Sven

    I find myself wondering whether the New York Times and other news organizations exercised good judgment by revealing it.If the administration had shown any deference to oversight, I’d say the Times was out of bounds. But as it stands, the threat to the rule of law and separation of powers these programs pose is a greater existential threat to the nation than terrorism.(Actually, the two threats are interrelated – as conservative scholars Bruce Fein and Norm Ornstein have pointed out, the administration’s actions have blurred the lines of authority and have set the stage for a constitutional crisis and breakdown of our system of government the next time we’re attacked.)The onus is on the administration for the leaks of sensitive information. Insiders would be less motivated to leak, and the press less motivated to publish, if Bushco would simply operate within constitutional bounds.

  2. MeTheSheeple

    As you pointed out, terrorists probably suspected they were liable to be wiretapped; the difference there is the lack of warrants.The United States began monitoring financial networks almost from the beginning. Again, though, there’s that curious lack of warrants. Shouldn’t these at least be run through FISA on, say, an every-six-months basis?

  3. Anonymous

    Dan, try to keep in mind the simple facts: a) the gov has special authority to track money – just needs a warrant. so this again is a warrantless infringement. b) the leak of this horseshit raid in miami was timed to deflect attention from the bank snooping stories, about which the admin. knew. c) tony snow put the FBI chief, Mueller, on cnn the same day. not fox. cnn, to goose up the “raid.” that was on purpose. meanwhile, fox messed around with a silly WMD “scoop” that was ancient nom-news. dan, this is what they do.

  4. Anonymous

    Dan, might want to get the facts straight. This part is not true: “The Bush administration’s only wrinkle with the NSA program was in breaking U.S. law.” Care to provide an proof of that assertion?

  5. Charles Foster Kane

    Given the ability of the United States government to search out and freeze the assets of individuals and organizations, I can’t imagine that terrorists (and people engaged in shady financial dealings generally) don’t know that money transfers are tracked. If I go down to my local bank and put $20,000 in cash in an account, the government is going to know. If I wire it out of the country, the government is going to know. The question at this point is what other choice do terrorists have to pay for the things they need? Barter? Sand?I also wish the New York Times hadn’t disclosed this program however, so I wouldn’t have to hear the likes of Michelle Malkin and other conservative bloggers whine about the liberal media.

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 11:15: Do you really have to go undercover to make such a comment? Now, I’m sure you already know that the administration was required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to obtain warrants in order to carry out the NSA wiretapping program. So, go for it — tell us why the FISA law doesn’t apply.

  7. metallicaMobes

    (just for the record, Anon 11:15 is not me)I just have a small problem with sven proclaiming that “the threat to the rule of law and separation of powers these programs pose is a greater existential threat to the nation than terrorism.”Hmmm, I must disagree. I don’t seem to remember having 3,000 people being killed by the existential force of unseparated powers of government, rather by 19 Islamists. Separation of powers is not an existential issue, it is an internal issue that poses FAR less of a corporal and tangible threat to American lives. Come on now Sven.

  8. Charles Foster Kane

    metallicamobes hits it right on the head: conservatives are far more scared of potential terrorist attacks than of the very real fundemental changes to the structure of the government of the United States and the circumscription of the rights of Americans. These fundemental changes that metallicamobes so blithely dismisses mean the terrorists have already won, aided and abetted by American conservatives.

  9. Charles Foster Kane

    Of course, that would be fundamental, not fundemental. My apologies.

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