In the latest example of the tension between government efforts in the war on terror and the media, the Bush administration is condemning news outlets that revealed details of a program that used the Internet to scan bank records for evidence of terrorism financing.
Speaking at the White House, President Bush labeled the reports, which appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, “disgraceful” while Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials also lashed out at the media outlets.
“We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm,” Bush said.
The program, which the Treasury Department confirmed after the reports, uses data from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift, a Belgium-based cooperative that acts as an intermediary in financial transactions. Swift is said to handle the movement of about US$6 trillion daily between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush authorized the close surveillance of Swift records and other evidence of financial transactions as a way of attempting to spot movement of money that might be tied to bankrolling terrorism training or attacks.
Bush said the revelation of the program “makes it harder to win this war on terror.”
Bush’s comments were echoed by other members of his administration. Some lawmakers called for action, including Congressman Peter T. King, a New York Republican and Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. King publicly called for criminal prosecution of The New York Times.
Some of the media outlets have rushed to defend themselves, while others have not responded directly to the criticism. The Los Angeles Times published a story Tuesday explaining why they decided to run the original story, with editor Dean Baquet saying “the decision to publish this article was not one we took lightly.
“In the end, we felt that the legitimate public interest in this program outweighed the potential cost to counterterrorism efforts,” he wrote.
The Bush administration has clashed with both traditional and new media repeatedly during its six years in office. The most recent collision came after numerous publications — online and off — revealed the existence of a program through which millions of domestic phone call records were being handed over to the National Security Agency (NSA) by the major telecommunications companies.
Those reports have brought numerous legal actions aimed at holding the telecom companies liable for violating longstanding laws prohibiting them from turning over phone records to the government without the consent of their customers. They also brought harsh criticism of Bush’s anti-terror campaign, which had previously been believed to be focused on tracking international phone calls and e-mail traffic.
As in past cases, the latest issue illustrates civil libertarians’ belief that the government has used Sept. 11 as a means of greatly expanding law enforcement’s reach and ability to randomly examine otherwise private records.
In the case of bank records, many private banks are known to have their own programs for monitoring transactions for possible terrorism links. However, critics of the Bush program say the government’s direct involvement is more of a problem and worry that law enforcement could be using the anti-terror program to conduct other types of surveillance.
While the press often clashes with those in power, the rapidly changing technological landscape may be further blurring the lines between informing the public and revealing secrets.
Technology has created new opportunities for government surveillance, such as by monitoring e-mails or digitized phone conservations, and has also changed the public’s perceptions about their privacy, Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Kevin Bankston told the E-Commerce Times.
“The public is comfortable with true anti-terror efforts, but the problem arises when wholesale monitoring or eavesdropping is done in the name of fighting terror,” he said. The cases currently pending, including suits over the NSA surveillance program, will go a long way in helping to determine where the lines between necessary surveillance and government overstepping lie.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers have called for hearings about whether the monitoring program is legal and was properly authorized. Reports say members of key Congressional committees were briefed on the report only when it became apparent the story would break in the media.