One of the arguments made by people desperate to undermine the significance of the bank tracking program disclosures is the claim that the terrorists must have known about this already. Even some who aren’t determined minimizers have fallen for this argument. For example, Roger L. Simon recently said: “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I assumed that such things were monitored in the post 9-11 era.”
Well, I don’t know about Roger L. Simon, but I never heard of the Swift consortium until June 22, when the stories first broke online. I bet the same is true of you. I think Roger and I assumed that financial transactions were monitored. But we didn’t know how.
Hugh Hewitt made a great analogy today in his interview with L.A. Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus:
Is there a difference between knowing, Doyle McManus, that, say, a city is looking for speeders, and knowing that they’ve installed a camera at a particular intersection?
Yes. Yes, there is. When you know where the traffic cameras are located, you just might drive down a different street. Especially when the stakes are high.
Similarly, there’s a difference between knowing that a government is trying to monitor financial transactions, and knowing how they’re doing it.
Many financial institutions participate in the Swift consortium. But not all do. The wise terrorist, opening his terrorism handbook (i.e. the home page of the New York Times), will carefully note which financial institutions participate, and use other ones.
Or perhaps the terrorist will find it useful to know exactly what information is available through Swift records — or that (as the New York Times carefully explained) “the information is not provided in real time – Swift generally turns it over several weeks later.”
“Mohammed, make sure the attack is carried out within two weeks of receipt of the funds. Yes, I know we originally planned it for later. Plans have changed. Don’t you read the New York Times?”
The minimizers say: ah, but the precise methods were already public! They point to this post from the Counterterrorism Blog, which says:
[R]eports on US monitoring of SWIFT transactions have been out there for some time. The information was fairly well known by terrorism financing experts back in 2002. The UN Al Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Group, on which I served as the terrorism financing expert, learned of the practice during the course of our monitoring inquiries. The information was incorporated in our report to the UN Security Council in December 2002. That report is still available on the UN Website.
But there is a significant difference between information being “out there,” as in “available in a single bureaucratically worded paragraph in an obscure U.N. report,” and between being “out there,” as in splashed all over the front pages of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.
But ultimately, the key issue isn’t whether I knew about Swift, or whether Roger L. Simon knew about Swift, or even whether you knew about Swift. The question is whether the terrorists knew about Swift.
And we don’t have to speculate about this. The undeniable fact is that they didn’t all know.
I hate to keep getting back to the facts, but sometimes it seems necessary. So, let’s reprise. The program’s most salient success was the capture of Hambali, the mastermind of the deadly 2002 Bali bombing. Counterterrorism Blog says the Swift information was “out there” in an obscure U.N. report in December 2002. So Hambali must have been captured before then, right?
But surely the program’s successes end there, correct?
Again, back to the pesky facts. The Wall Street Journal article (no link available) tells us another success story resulting from the program:
People familiar with the program said, for example, that it yielded useful information on the bombings last July 7 in London.
Last July 7? As in July 7, 2005?
Impossible! The terrorists must have known about Swift by then! How could they have failed to scrutinize paragraph 31 of the UN Al Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Group’s report to the UN Security Council in December 2002?
The bottom line, folks, is that terrorists are not all supermen. Yes, many of them are quite sophisticated. Many are adept at using the Internet. I am willing to wager that plenty of Al Qaeda terrorists actively scour the Web for scraps of information relating to our government’s efforts to track and monitor them.
But you know what? Evidently they didn’t all get the message.
But I guarantee you they got it this time.
Thank you again, Bill Keller and Dean Baquet.
UPDATE: From John Snow’s letter today to Bill Keller:
You have defended your decision to compromise this program by asserting that “terror financiers know” our methods for tracking their funds and have already moved to other methods to send money. The fact that your editors believe themselves to be qualified to assess how terrorists are moving money betrays a breathtaking arrogance and a deep misunderstanding of this program and how it works. While terrorists are relying more heavily than before on cumbersome methods to move money, such as cash couriers, we have continued to see them using the formal financial system, which has made this particular program incredibly valuable.
But forget you read that. After all, Bill Keller knows far more about how the terrorists move their money than do John Snow and the President of the United States! He’s Bill Freaking Keller! He goes to cocktail parties in the Hamptons! He’s the editor of the freaking New York Times! It’s the closest thing to God himself on the planet! The power that has been given him is not something to be taken lightly!
Kids need fairy tales to sleep, and I imagine that these days, Bill Keller, Dean Baquet, and their defenders probably sleep better thinking that this program wasn’t effective anyway. The facts say otherwise — but since when do facts matter when you’re determined to believe in a fairy tale?