Saturday, June 24, 2006

The White House yesterday defended a secret program to track hundreds of thousands of financial transactions of suspected terrorists, and Vice President Dick Cheney voiced outrage that some newspapers had decided to reveal details of “vital national security programs.”

Bush spokesman Tony Snow said the tracking program is focused exclusively on shutting down terrorist financing. “It’s a good thing to shut off the spigot, the financial spigot,” he said. “It does seem to be working.”

“The program has been tracing transactions of people suspected of having ties to al Qaeda. Routine transactions confined to this country are generally not in the database,” the spokesman said.

He also said that an outside auditor has had oversight of the program and that “appropriate members of Congress,” including those on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the House, had been informed from the very beginning.

The vice president said the administration had asked the press to withhold details of the program, which was initially reported Thursday night. “What I find most disturbing about these stories is the fact that some of the news media take it upon themselves to disclose vital national security programs, thereby making it more difficult for us to prevent future attacks against the American people. That offends me,” Mr. Cheney said in Chicago.

In the weeks following the September 11 attacks, Treasury officials obtained access to an extensive international financial database — the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift.

The cooperative, based in Belgium, handles financial message traffic from thousands of financial institutions in more than 200 countries.

Treasury Secretary John W. Snow said the program, run by the CIA and overseen by his department, was “responsible government — it’s effective government, it’s government that works.”

“It’s entirely consistent with democratic values, with our best legal traditions,” he said at a press conference yesterday. “By following the money we’ve been able to locate operatives, we’ve been able to locate their financiers, we’ve been able to chart the terrorist networks and we’ve been able to bring the terrorists to justice.”

The Treasury chief said that there are “very significant protocols and safeguards” in place to ensure the privacy of Americans, adding that the effort was not “data mining or trolling through the private financial records of Americans.”

Swift said it had negotiated with the Treasury “over the scope and oversight of the subpoenas.”

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill complained that the program is similar to Mr. Bush’s ordering of National Security Agency surveillance of telephone calls and e-mails of terror suspects.

“Like the domestic surveillance program exposed last December, the Bush administration’s efforts to tap into the financial records of thousands of Americans appear to rely on justifications concocted without regard to current law,” Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said.

Rep. Barney Frank, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, said he was “deeply concerned” about people’s privacy.

Republicans defended the program. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, had been briefed on the program and had “full confidence in the effectiveness of, and the legal authority for, this vital anti-terrorism tool,” Frist spokeswoman Amy Call said.

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