- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

Next week, I will welcome to Washington the finance ministers and central bank governors of the G-7 countries. Our focus, as always, will be on building the conditions for economic growth and fostering stability worldwide. But also high on the agenda will be our continuing collaborative work to ensure that the global financial system is secured against illicit activities, especially terrorist financing.

When the planes hit the Twin Towers and Pentagon on September 11, there was no question as to the driving force: hatred. However, that hatred only transformed into reality through the financial networks underpinning Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. The funds used to carry out the September 11 attacks flowed through the financial system, not only abroad but also right here in the U.S. And it was at that point — as America united in our determination to defeat the evils of terrorism — that we truly realized how critical it is to employ financial tools to protect our homeland.

Since September 11, President Bush, Congress and the greater U.S. Government have been at the forefront of a concerted effort with our allies around the world — public and private sector alike — to collect, share and analyze all available information to track and disrupt the activities of terrorists. Financial officials play a key role in that effort; indeed, financial intelligence is among our most valuable sources of data for waging this fight.

Financial officials from all over the world recognize the horror of terrorism and are increasingly recognizing the critical role that we can and must play in combating the international scourge. As my colleague, British [Chancellor of the Exchequer] Gordon Brown, said earlier this year, “we need not only to deny a safe haven to terrorists, but ensure there is no hiding place for those who finance terrorism.” His statement hit the mark: Those who reach for their wallets to fund terrorism must be pursued with equal determination as those who reach for a bomb or a gun.

A terrorist organization like al Qaeda needs to be able to raise, move and store money in order to recruit, train and pay operatives, support their families, purchase false documents and detonators, as well as to plan and carry out attacks. When terrorists move money through the financial system, they expose themselves to detection and apprehension. Hidden among the vast number of financial transactions that move through our financial system are clues — whether an address or a link between two conspirators — that can mean the difference between a successful investigation and a dead end. We must do everything we can to search out these clues and exploit them. Money trails don’t lie.

The September 11 commission staff recognized the critical importance of combating terrorist financing, emphasizing that “[f]ollowing the money to identify terrorist operatives and sympathizers provides a particularly powerful tool in the fight against terrorist groups. Use of this tool almost always remains invisible to the general public, but it is a critical part of the overall campaign against al Qaeda.”

With this fact in mind, the president and Congress created the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Treasury Department. The twin missions of this office are to protect the financial system and to disrupt the networks that support terrorists and other national security threats. Included within this new organization is something the Treasury Department had never had before: a fully functional intelligence office, staffed by expert analysts focused on the financial networks of terrorists and other threats to our national security. Much work remains, of course, but we have already achieved concrete successes.

Consistent with our duties to safeguard privacy as well as the integrity of the financial system, Treasury works with the financial sector to identify illicit activity and exclude it from the channels of legitimate commerce. Treasury, among other means, draws upon all available financial information — whether collected via suspicious activity reports, subpoenas or other filings made by financial institutions under the Bank Secrecy Act — to track and disrupt terrorist money flows. In this way, we have been able to shut down corrupt charities, track and expose terrorist financiers and, in the process, deter other would-be donors to terrorist causes.

As we become more adept at tracking terrorist financial flows, we have also been able to assist our partners in law enforcement and the intelligence community, as well as our partners abroad, by sharing financial data that can help them to “connect the dots.” It is this kind of concerted effort that led the September 11 commission’s Public Discourse Project to award its highest grade to our collaborative efforts to combat terrorist financing.

However, our continued success in combating terrorist financing will require us to increase our cooperation with partners around the globe and to learn from one another’s experiences. Canadian and Australian authorities, for example, are also tracking financial data to map and disrupt terrorist financing networks. Finance ministries worldwide stand at the forefront of achieving the shared goals of not only economic, but also national, security. Our impact increases exponentially when we join together to make multilateral use of our financial tools.

The world faces no greater threat than that of terrorism, and preservation of our civilization in the face of that threat is not only our priority, but also our duty. Indeed, this is why the Treasury will continue to aggressively fight the financial war on terror.

John Snow is secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

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