Editor's note: This is the final post of a three-part blog series on terrorist finances. In Part 1 we examined al Qaeda’s challenging financial situation. In Part 2 we examined at the Taliban’s money trail and in the final Part 3 of the series we look at international cooperation (or sometimes the lack-thereof) in tracking terrorist financing. Bookmark our Security Brief section to track the latest on national security issues.
“I'll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that's all. Just... follow the money.” So said Deep Throat, in the movie “All The President’s Men.”
It’s a lesson the U.S. government has taken to heart in pursuit of international terrorists. But it’s not always easy to “follow the money” when critical information is off-limits on another continent.
Somewhere in Europe there are huge computer servers that process about 11 million financial “messages” involving trillions of dollars every day. They belong to an organization called SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications), which acts as a secure link for the global financial community to exchange information about the movement of money. But this arcane business has become the subject of an unseemly squabble between Europe and the United States over tracking the financing of terrorism.
Until last year, SWIFT had operations in the United States, allowing the U.S. government to obtain data that would help in terrorism investigations through the Treasury’s Terrorist Financing Tracking Program (TFTP.) U.S. officials say this program has been an essential tool in tracking terrorism – supplying more than 1500 reports to counterterrorism investigators in Europe.
But when the U.S. sought continued access to SWIFT data this year, through a new agreement with the European Commission, the European Parliament had a fit. Members claimed the practice violated privacy laws in the European Union and that investigators might go on open-ended “fishing expeditions.” They were also angry that the European Commission had not consulted the Parliament about the arrangement. So in February, the Parliament refused to agree to a new data-sharing accord.
This may sound like pretty dry stuff, but it’s so important to the U.S. that no lesser figures than Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder have appealed for the agreement’s reinstatement, and pledged to address privacy concerns.
"We believe that the TFTP is essential to our security as well as yours,” Biden told the European Parliament last week. "It has provided critical leads to counter-terrorist investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, disrupting plots and saving lives," he said.
This week, after intense lobbying from Washington, talks on a new deal with the EU got underway.
U.S. official sources – who cannot speak on the record about particular cases - point to several investigations where the TFTP has been vital, in part because of access to SWIFT data.
US officials say TFTP information helped the investigation of the Madrid bombings in 2004, and the U.K.-based plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic in 2006.
The new negotiations will tackle the fine balance between investigating suspects’ financial dealings and civil liberties.
For its part, the US has pointed to safeguards in the TFTP involving the privacy of individuals’ data and a right of redress, the length of time data is preserved, as well as external auditing of the way the program is used.
Last month the U.S. Treasury Department hosted a group of European Parliament members to try to assuage their anxieties.
One official acknowledges these are unprecedented concessions, as they potentially involve methods and sources in active U.S. terror investigations.
"It’s a real concern,” says one official. "We’ve been conscious in negotiations not to compromise national security and [the] intelligence apparatus.”
But so vital is access to SWIFT that the U.S. is prepared to make far-reaching concessions on information-sharing.
Officials on both sides are stressing the urgency of reaching a deal and hope to conclude talks before the end of June. But even then the new agreement must go to the European Parliament.
“Both sides agree on the imperative of reaching a mutually acceptable agreement as soon as possible to plug the current vacuum, but the European Parliament cannot be complicit in any agreement that goes against our own laws," the member leading the Parliament’s response, Dutch MEP Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said.
In the meantime, U.S. officials would not agree with the adage “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.”
They are concerned that important leads on current terror investigations just may be lost while negotiations to restore access to SWIFT data drag on.