U.S. searching bank transactions
Treasury chief Snow defends use of broad subpoenas to track alleged terrorists' finances through Belgian firm that handles worldwide banking traffic.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - In an effort to track the flow of terrorist money in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Treasury Department obtained data from an international cooperative that transmits information between financial institutions worldwide, both the department and the cooperative said.
Speaking at a press conference Friday, Treasury Secretary John Snow insisted the program was "consistent with our democratic values" and "an important source of information about global financial flows."
The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported that the records were examined under a series of broad U.S. subpoenas, with the Times reporting that Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions.
The Journal also said the existence of the program may be controversial in Europe and other parts of the world, and within the global banking industry, which has long worried about the privacy of transactions.
"There can't be any doubt about the fact that the program is an effective weapon in the larger war on terror," Snow told reporters Friday.
Snow defended the program in a previous statement, saying it was "not a fishing expedition, but rather a sharp harpoon aimed at the heart of terrorist activity," adding that the disclosure of the program in news reports, which prompted his statement, was "regrettable."
"Public dissemination of our sources and methods of fighting terrorists not only harms national security, but also degrades the government's efforts to prevent terrorist activity in the future," he said. "If there are people sending money to help al Qaeda, then we need to know about it. We also need to take advantage of that knowledge to follow the money trail and thwart them."
Snow also stressed the Treasury Department's transparency regarding the program, noting "we've never denied it [the program], we have been open that we do this."
SWIFT - or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication - issued a statement Thursday confirming it had "responded to compulsory subpoenas" from the Treasury Department after 9/11.
Based in Belgium, SWIFT is a financial industry cooperative that distributes data messages between 7,800 financial institutions in more than 200 countries, as well as providing the software that allows the institutions to communicate with each other. According to the Journal, SWIFT handles more than 11 million transactions a day. The Times reports that it handles $6 trillion in transactions daily.
Both newspapers said audits of the program are conducted to make sure that data searches are based on intelligence leads about suspected terrorists. And both said administration officials say the program has been important to both disrupting terrorist activity and to catching those responsible for attacks.
"SWIFT received significant protections and assurances as to the purpose, confidentiality, oversight and control of the limited sets of data produced under the subpoenas," the company said. "Independent audit controls provide additional assurance that these protections are fully complied with."
SWIFT said its "fundamental principle has been to preserve the confidentiality of our users' data while complying with the lawful obligations in countries where we operate."
"Striking that balance has guided SWIFT through this process" with the Treasury Department, the statement said.
Stuart Levey, a senior Treasury official who helps conduct the terrorist finance tracking program, said at Friday's press conference that SWIFT is primarily used for overseas fund transfers and does not contain information on daily transactions conducted by U.S. citizens such as deposits, withdrawals or electronic payments.