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June 28, 2006

NYT & US SWIFT 'spying' prog bis

I noted that Kevin Drum has linked to an intriguing but I think rather wrong-headed discussion at Crooked Timber with respect to the SWIFT program. How the author at Crooked concludes that the Central Banks were not the proper authorities for SWIFT to communicate with truly escapes me, as in most jurisdictions they are precisely the authorities that most jurisdictions have regulating payment systems, and for most GAFI compliant countries, have dedicated staff for these kinds of issues...

A commentator draws attention to this paragraph from this UN document (although I seem to unable to access):

31. The settlement of international transactions is usually handled through correspondent banking relationships or large-value message and payment systems, such as the SWIFT, Fedwire or CHIPS systems in the United States of America. Such international clearance centres are critical to processing international banking transactions and are rich with payment information. The United States has begun to apply new monitoring techniques to spot and verify suspicious transactions. The Group recommends the adoption of similar mechanisms by other countries.

Absolutely nothing surprising, and as I commented at the Washington Monthly blog, the reaction of both Left and Right in the US of A are pure political theatre (as is the EU authorities it would appear, since the relevant fin sector authorities were aware of the program, again rendering the Claude Rainesesque "I'm shocked!" reaction more amusing).

Perhaps a few truly dim terrorists have suddenly realised that the US (and other authorities) monitor wires and the like, but I would wager a good 1000 livres that anyone so dimwitted as to not know this will be easily caught. Else, much ado about nothing really (except re the potential that EU authorities will take their "I'm shocked" play acting too far and cancel the irritating but necessary program - I do lots of wires and am not excited about US Gov tracking me, but on the other hand am confident the deluge of data actually probably renders me virtually anonymous).

Oh yes, in case it is not clear, while I sympathise to an extent with the outrage on the US Right over the NYT arty, frankly the whinging on about treason is overdone and I think dangerous, and overall the paper had every right to run with it.

Posted by The Lounsbury at June 28, 2006 08:40 PM
Filed Under: Business , MENA Region General , Politics - EU FP , Politics - Other FP , Politics - US FP

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Hi Col

The program was designed to catch the stupid, lazy, corrupt, amateur, wannabe but still, ill-intentioned, elements on the jihadi fringe. I agree that most of these losers are apt to be caught but then again, the lucky but stupid can sometimes do some real damage. They also can be leads to genuine troublemakers.

Publishing the explicit details of SWIFT -i.e. advertising it loudly - was asinine. The officials who leaked it, knowing the Times would run with it, are vindictively consumed with inside-the-beltway feuding.

Treason ? No -but several years of legal hassles with DOJ investigators and grand juries for illegal leaking might remind ppl about larger priorities.

Posted by: mark safranski at June 28, 2006 09:51 PM

Afraid I don't buy your line of reasoning. The detials, to my eye, were not detials. And in any case, it was well-known US was looking at such things. Corrupt and lazy are not enough not to know this, one has to be really incompetent or stunningly ill-informed. Given the amount of hawala and mafia/smuggling expertise in MENA, I'm afraid your implicit assumptions on this thing are off-base. Detials on how they are tracking and analysing the data, now that would be useful. Merely that they are doing it? So the fuck what, everyone thought so anyway. For fuck sake man, I hear far more outlandish claims about what the US is supposedly doing on a dialy basis.

Posted by: The Lounsbury at June 29, 2006 01:14 AM

And I will add the selective calls for prosecution of "leaks" doesn't do credit either. The whole thing is a bunch of bloody overdone semi-informed whanking on about disclosures that are only news to, well, ignorant dumbass Americans who know fuck-all about wires and the like because they are little used in USA.

Neither Left nor Right are correct here, they're both engaged in moronic, ill-informed whinging on.

Posted by: The Lounsbury at June 29, 2006 01:17 AM

I haven't looked at the left commentary on this, but the Prez's take was borderline fascist, and, as usual, stupid in the extreme. His default setting on the latter; as to the former, he's getting worse by the day.
I also haven't read up on the details, because the damn thing is so fuckin' banal. I worked, years ago, on what we know around here as "the money laundering project" for the Fed. Basically, these days, money transfers over some set amount, I don't remember the amount anymore, have to have the beneficial account name on it, not just the bank name and ABA number, to facilitate tracing in the event of a money laundering investigation. This was done, as I recall, in response to the mess in Mexico after Salinas' administration ended. Given this, all of us knew something would be initiated after 9/11 to trace wires of more, um, questionable provenance.
Anyway, Olbermann tonight - a liberal news show on MSNBC - had the right perspective: IT WASN'T A SECRET, and therefore saying the NYT did something horrible is too stupid for words. Anyone involved in the game would know this kind of thing could easily be done and would be done.
Only a totalitarian would find this bullshit coming out of the Admin about how awful the NYT is for publishing this tolerable. Or a hopelessly partisan asshole.

Posted by: pantom at June 29, 2006 05:59 AM

L: Just reading the Crooked Timber article, and not bothering to follow any links or anything, he seems to be arguing that (1) the data privacy laws require a specific national-security override if they're going to be, well, overridden and that (2) this requires going to the national governments rather than the central banks. It's possible that on this reading it was the central banks, rather than SWIFT, that were irresponsible in not seeking a clearer mandate from the political authorities to okay the data-sharing.

Posted by: Tom Scudder at June 29, 2006 02:29 PM

This is like watching kabuki without knowing any Japanese, or even having a program. The NYT helped Bush in 2004 by knowingly sitting on two stories (Plame, NSA) that were highly negative for him. Now they publish a piece of non-new news and the Republicans have a hissy fit denouncing them as traitors. Something does not compute.

Posted by: Roger Bigod at June 29, 2006 04:14 PM

Since when are Central Banks not part of the national government?

Usually in best-practice they are independent financial regulators, but still government. The CT argument doesn't make any sense to me as a financial sector person. It is not even clear to me CBs and related authorities were in any way "irresponsible" - although that is a lawyer's call to make re the relevant jurisdictions particulars.

As to President Bush's comments, eh. Political theatre. I am unmoved by the whole thing other than somewhere between amused and annoyed by the to-do over such a non-issue.

But given the political wrangling and upcoming elections, to be expected.

Posted by: The Lounsbury at June 29, 2006 06:07 PM

Seems to me that as a basically nonpolitical body, the CBs really shouldn't be making fundamentally political decisions like, "should we be abrogating some of our sovereignty in order to tackle this transnational problem". It's a decision that needs to be made by someone who's responsible to the voters.

Which doesn't mean that sharing the records, etc. is a bad thing, or a bad move. But the process matters.

(And it's also possible that this cooperation is fully covered by some prior agreement between the US and Europe. And even if not, I wouldn't be surprised if the various Euro gov's knew, but didn't want to know the particulars. And if this were the only time that the Bush admin had been involved in some sort of procedural short-cut involving peoples' rights, crime detection, terrorism, etc etc, I wouldn't really give much of a shit. But.)

Posted by: Tom Scudder at June 29, 2006 06:48 PM

Central Banks make political decisions all the time, such as what data must be collected for financial transactions and the like. Depends on the particulars of the sovereign entity if they have decisional power or not.

I continue to fail to see why the CBs would not be appropriate entities in most cases, contra the "privacy advocates."

Posted by: The Lounsbury at June 29, 2006 07:46 PM

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