Saturday, June 24, 2006

'Potential for abuse is enormous'


So says an official quoted by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau in their story on the CIA-Treasury sifting of financial transaction data moving through the Swift consortium. (search: risen, banking).

A treasury official conceded that one investigator had been removed for conducting an "inappropriate" search.

Swift now says that it is committed to providing counter-terrorists with access to its data-base, though previously Swift officials had been very skittish about the open-ended program, launched in response to 9/11, and in 2003 threatened to block access and only agreed to continue after a watchdog and other controls were put in place to prevent abuses.

Supposedly, only financial data linked to terror suspects was eyed by the CIA; drug lords and mob bosses were protected. Yet if the legal reasoning for ignoring the Fourth Amendment applies in terror cases [see N.Y. Times story], it also applies in other matters.

Why the selectivity? Probably because of the cherished sanctity of Swiss banking privacy. Yet, Swift officials must have been aware that a "slight loss of virginity" is still a scandal. Despite being given legal cover via administrative subpoenas (again, no courts wanted), they were very concerned that the program might become public. Yes, it's true that such subpoenas may not satisfy Swiss and European laws. However, the big problem is trust. Switzerland, where the consortium is based, has long been praised for devotion to banking privacy, a fact which has built up the Swiss banking system. Hence, disclosure that Swiss banks are not terribly safe from government intrusions may upset quite a few financial applecarts.

One can expect that this disclosure will cost the Swiss banking system dearly, with a great many transactions now going through alternative routes.


A coalition of religious organizations is urging Congress to conduct an investigation of the NSA's warrantless wiretap program. Signatories are African American Ministries in Action, American Friends Service Committee, Friends Committee on National Leglisation, Presbyterian Church USA, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the Rabbinical Assembly, United Church of Christ (Justice and Witness Ministries), United Methodist Church (General Board of Church and Society), Unitarian Universalist Association of America, and Union of Reform Judaism.


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