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U.S. Acknowledges Sifting Global Bank Records

Bush administration officials confirm that, since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has been tracking terrorist finances by accessing a vast international data base known as SWIFT. The officials defend the program as "legal, targeted and effective."

Treasury Secretary John Snow confirmed the program of tapping into a vast database that holds the records billions of financial transactions. Snow says the program works, that it has helped to catch terrorists, and that it represents "government at its best."

U.S. investigators have been able to trace the wire transfers and other transactions of suspected terrorists, with the goal of catching them, or at least disrupting their cash flow. Treasury Secretary Snow says the tactic is time-honored: follow the money.

SWIFT, an acronym for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is a cooperative based in Brussels, Belgium.

Civil liberties groups and some Members of Congress are concerned that the program is part of a broader pattern of aggressive and intrusive investigative methods adopted since 2001.

But Snow defends the program as being narrowly targeted, with safeguards to prevent intrusions into the privacy of ordinary Americans. But he was unhappy that the program's existence was revealed in news accounts. The Bush administration tried to talk reporters out of running the story.

Secretary Snow says the more terrorists know about how they're being tracked, the more likely they are to switch tactics.

There are still many unanswered questions about the finance-tracking program. The government says it is legal, but critics have their doubts.

The federal government has previously acknowledged wiretapping Americans without obtaining a warrant. Revelations that analysts are also tracking international banking records prompted a question from American Civil Liberties Union Director Anthony Romero: "How many other secret spying programs has the Bush administration enacted without Congress, the courts or the public knowing?"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.