July 11, 2006

US assessing impact of terror money trail leak

By Caroline Drees, Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The disclosure of a secret U.S.
program to monitor bank transfers will logically hurt efforts
to track terrorism finance, although it is too soon to know the
actual impact, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday.

President Bush and other top officials have condemned
reports on the secret program by The New York Times and other
papers last month, saying they undermined efforts to fight
terrorism. Bush called the disclosure "disgraceful." Some
lawmakers have called it treason.

Stuart Levey, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and
financial intelligence, said the program's exposure was "a
grave loss" to efforts to fight al Qaeda and other militants,
but acknowledged the effect was not yet apparent because of a
time lag in obtaining the classified information.

"We haven't seen the result (of the disclosure) yet because
the data that we're accessing right now was data that was
created before the news stories," Levey told a House of
Representatives financial services subcommittee hearing.

He said it was a "matter of logic" that the publication
would harm the efforts to follow the money trail of militants,
which he said continued to provide concrete leads every day.

"I am hopeful that we will still have some value from the
program and we intend to continue with it," he said, adding it
remained to be seen if the leak had made the system defunct.

For nearly five years since the September 11 attacks, the
Treasury has been tapping into records of the Society for
Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) for
evidence of potential activity by militant groups.

U.S. officials have defended the program, saying it was
legal, effective and adequately supervised to avoid abuse.


Levey said that among the safeguards in place were the need
for a subpoena to get the records; limits on data searches
which require a specific link to a terrorism investigation; the
ability of SWIFT representatives to monitor the searches in
real time and stop one if they have concerns; and the
collection of records on each search that is conducted.

He said top members of the congressional intelligence
committees as well as the central banks of the Group of 10
major industrialized countries were briefed.

But several Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the
hearing said Congress had not been kept in the loop.

Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, said that of
the 28 House members who were briefed on the program, 23 were
briefed only after the administration knew the program was
about to be made public by the papers.

"Many in Congress who should have been briefed by this
administration were not," said Rep. Sue Kelly, a New York
Republican who chairs the subcommittee on oversight and
investigations which conducted the hearing.

She said she asked the Government Accountability Office,
the investigative arm of Congress, on Tuesday to look into the
program to "ensure that it was indeed conducted in accordance
with all proper laws, that it does possess all necessary
safeguards and that Congress was appropriately informed."