Friday, July 07, 2006


By William Fisher

President Bush and Vice President Cheney were apoplectic. Publication of the details of U.S. Government surveillance of the SWIFT money-transfer program were “disgraceful,” a threat to national security.

Congressman Peter King suggested that The New York Times – though it was only one of the newspapers to run this story – be charged with treason. Oh, my!

Facts did nothing to quell this press-bashing frenzy. The facts are that the SWIFT program has been reported by numerous media outlets for the past several years.

According to Roger Cressey, a senior White House counter-terrorism official until 2003, “There have been public references to SWIFT before. The White House is overreaching," Cressey told the Boston Globe, when the administration suggests the Times committed ``a crime against the war on terror. It has been in the public domain before."

And if the terrorists were clever enough to hijack four airplanes, surely they would have long since figured out that their money trails were being watched. And would have found less formal financial laundries to carry out their evil venture capitalism.

But for the Bush Administration, the SWIFT story presented a wonderful way to change the subject. From Iraq, where things aren’t going so well. From the Supreme Court, which cancelled the President’s blank check. From immigration, where the President’s tanking poll numbers finally gave our supine House of Representatives the spine to resist the more comprehensive approach proposed by their own party’s Senate colleagues. From rising gasoline prices. From post-Katrina chaos. From our problems with Iran and North Korea, and the Administration’s continuing failure to devote serious resources to the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Attacking the messenger is a tried and true Washington tactic. Especially when the messenger is the press.

Democrats didn’t exactly call for Bill Keller’s head, but neither did they distinguish themselves for the political courage to defend the First Amendment.

But the money trail story apparently has legs. Comes now news from the AP that money transfer agencies like Western Union have delayed or blocked thousands of cash deliveries on suspicion of terrorist connections simply because senders or recipients have names like Mohammed or Ahmed.

The AP reports that Western Union Financial Services, Inc., an American company based in Colorado, said its clerks simply are following U.S. Treasury Department guidelines that aim to scrutinize cash flows for terrorist links. Most of the flagged transactions are delayed a few hours. Some are blocked entirely.

"The Treasury program interferes with even the most innocent transactions," said the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR, in Washington. "Just because Ahmed is a common name on (the government’s) list, everyone with that name is suddenly stuck."

CAIR spokesman Corey Saylor said Treasury needs to reform its rules.

Treasury’s aggressive approach dates from 9/11, and Western Union's caution is not surprising. September 11th hijacker Mohammed Atta sent money from two Western Union agencies in Maryland before boarding the plane he helped crash into New York's World Trade Center.

But a Western Union branch manager told the AP he was forced to obey U.S. rules that he and others consider too broad.

"Mohammed and Ahmed have become problematic names because they are so common on the list of terrorists," said Nixon Baby, who runs a Western Union franchise in a Dubai neighborhood packed with South Asian businesses.

"These are regulations that Western Union is required to obey. We do not have any control," he added.

But critics of the program say it is far too broad, the AP reports. “The number of people inconvenienced in the United Arab Emirates alone, which closely cooperates with U.S. counter-terror operations, is thought to be significant. One Western Union clerk said about 300 money transfers from a single Dubai franchise were blocked or delayed each day — none of which ever turned up a terrorist link.”

In Washington, a U.S. Treasury spokeswoman said foreign banks have used the department's list of terrorist names to freeze $150 million in assets since it was released after Sept. 11. The terrorist list, which is available on the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control Website, contains hundreds of people named Mohammed.

"Every Mohammed is a terrorist now?" asked a Western Union customer whose money transfer was blocked.

Critics of the Treasury guidelines say they are sending more people to informal money transfer networks called "hundis" or "hawalas" that circumvent government and bank scrutiny, the AP reports. Hawala networks are known to have been used by gangsters and terrorists.

The Administration cannot be faulted for trying to follow the financial trails of people bent on destroying us, whether they are charitable organizations or money transfer companies like SWIFT and Western Union.

The question is whether broad-brush surveillance cloaked in secrecy is the most effective way to achieve this goal without writing the government another blank check.

We know the government’s counter-terrorism people are working hard. But are they working smart?