The NYT and National Security….Another View

THE NYT AND NATIONAL SECURITY….ANOTHER VIEW….Here’s another take on whether the New York Times damaged national security by exposing the Treasury Department’s terror finance tracking program. In The One Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind spends a lot of time describing the way U.S. intelligence tracked global money flows after 9/11, including accounts of the cooperation they got from Western Union (wire transfers), First Data Corporation (credit card records), and the takeover of a “money store” in Pakistan. He doesn’t mention the SWIFT program specifically, but he makes it clear that U.S. teams had their fingers in a lot of financial pies and had a considerable amount of success with it.

But only for a while:

In the closing months of 2003…the carefully constructed global network of sigint and what can be called finint, or financial intelligence, started to go quiet.

In short, al Qaeda, and its affiliates and imitators, stopped leaving electronic footprints. It started slowly, but then became distinct and clear, a definable trend. They were going underground.

….”We were surprised it took them so long,” said one senior intelligence official. “But the lesson here is that with an adaptable, patient enemy, a victory sometimes creates the next set of challenges. In this case, we did some things that worked very well, and they started to evolve.”

Or devolve. The al Qaeda playbook, employed by what was left of the network, its affiliates and imitators, started to stress the necessity of using couriers to carry cash and hand-delivered letters. This slowed the pace of operations, if not their scale, and that was, indeed, a victory.

By the beginning of 2004, Suskind says, the finint operation was in a “state of increasing obsolescence.” The money store had closed down, the Palestinians had gotten wise to Western Union, and the “matrix,” as he calls the overall finint operation, was becoming less and less effective.

Take this for what it’s worth. But if Suskind is right, the SWIFT program probably hasn’t been producing much actionable intelligence for over two years. NYT editor Bill Keller claims that government efforts to prevent exposure of the program were “half hearted,” and if he’s right, maybe this is the reason. Maybe it had outlived its usefulness long before the Times discovered it.