Comras writes that “reports on US monitoring of SWIFT transactions have been out there for some time. The information was fairly well known by terrorism financing experts back in 2002.” And he quotes from a publicly available (though not this morning) report he wrote for the United Nations:
The settlement of international transactions is usually handled through correspondent banking relationships or large-value message and payment systems, such as the SWIFT, Fedwire or CHIPS systems in the United States of America. Such international clearance centres are critical to processing international banking transactions and are rich with payment information. The United States has begun to apply new monitoring techniques to spot and verify suspicious transactions. The Group recommends the adoption of similar mechanisms by other countries.
Now, there’s exposure and there’s exposure. I suppose you could argue that the terrorists don’t spend their time perusing the UN’s Web site (although I wouldn’t be surprised if they do), but that articles published on the front of the Times are likely to capture their attention. But we’re starting to slice the salami pretty thinly here.
A number of people have made the point that the terrorists already knew their finances were being tracked. Now we know that it’s been publicly known since at least December 2002 precisely how that tracking is taking place.
Cries of espionage and even treason are starting to look fairly ridiculous.
The White House and its defenders also give the game away by refusing to differentiate between the NSA no-warrant wiretapping program — obviously illegal, given that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires warrants — and the SWIFT program, which appears to be on more solid legal ground.
By lumping them together, folks like U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., make it clear that they’re only interested in scoring points against the media.
Update: More on Comras from today’s Boston Globe:
Victor D. Comras , a former US diplomat who oversaw efforts at the United Nations to improve international measures to combat terror financing, said it was common knowledge that worldwide financial transactions were being closely monitored for links to terrorists. “A lot of people were aware that this was going on,” said Comras, one of a half-dozen financial experts UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recruited for the task.
“Unless they were pretty dumb, they had to assume” their transactions were being monitored, Comras said of terrorist groups. “We have spent the last four years bragging how effective we have been in tracking terrorist financing.”
Read the whole thing. It’s starting to look like the Times’ best defense is that this is very old news.
Update II: By the way, I’m not saying this line of defense is something of which the media ought to be proud. Take it away, Jay:
The media is now faced with two unattractive scenarios: A.) Defend the articles as news — and face up to the consequence that outlets reported on what appears to be a lawful and effective program or B.) Admit the articles weren’t news — and face up to the consequence that the public now knows outlets didn’t do basic pre-publication research.
I’m not sure I agree, but at the moment I can’t say I disagree, either. How’s that for decisiveness?