Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fashions in Totalitarianism 

What ho! We were latterly wondering whether the terrorist-loving traitors at the New York Times should be hanged, drawn and quartered, strangled with their own bowels, or all of the above for revealing the existence of a government program that the government itself has been bragging about for some years now, and it occurred to us that, were it not for the debilitating case of mass amnesia that currently afflicts our fourth estate, a certain measure of public contumely might properly be reserved for the Republican legislators who prevented a similar money-tracking program from being implemented well in advance of the 9/11 attacks. From (of all places!) the New York Times of Sept. 20, 2001, preserved for posterity through the kind agency of the Smirking Chimp:
A six-year struggle to uncover Osama bin Laden's financial network failed because American officials did not skillfully use the legal tools they had, did not realize they needed stronger weapons, and faced resistance at home and abroad, officials involved in the effort say.

Federal officials say they have not persuaded foreign banks to open their books to investigators and that in this country, a law that would have allowed the United States to penalize foreign banks that did not cooperate was blocked last year by a single United States senator . . . .

But present and former government officials say that since the mid- 1990's, they did not fully use the legal tools they had to wage this difficult fight. "We could have starved the organization if we put our minds to it," said Richard Palmer, who gained experience in money laundering as the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief in Moscow during the 1990's. "The government has had the ability to track these accounts for some time."

Congress is now reviving a proposal killed last year by Senator Phil Gramm, the Texas Republican who was then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. The bill, introduced by the Clinton administration, would give the Treasury secretary broad power to bar foreign countries and banks from access to the American financial market unless they cooperated with money-laundering investigations. It was strongly opposed by the banking industry and Mr. Gramm.

"I was right then and I am right now" in opposing the bill, Mr. Gramm said yesterday. He called the bill "totalitarian" and added, "The way to deal with terrorists is to hunt them down and kill them" . . . .

The effort to track the bin Laden group's money began in earnest when President Bill Clinton signed a classified presidential order on Oct. 21, 1995. The secret order, Presidential Decision Directive 42, ordered the Departments of Justice, State and Treasury, the National Security Council, the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies to increase and integrate their efforts against international money laundering by terrorists and criminals.

The government agencies joined together to try to penetrate the bin Laden network of businesses, charities, banks and front companies. They failed . . . .

The lack of great success was "mostly due to the limited assistance we received from key countries abroad," Mr. Wechsler said. He blamed "their lack of political will or weaknesses in their laws which fail to effectively regulate their financial institutions and charities."

Until last week's attacks, the Bush administration was not much more enthusiastic about new money laundering laws than Mr. Gramm. Led by its chief economic adviser, Lawrence B. Lindsey, the administration did not want to pressure international banks in the United States and elsewhere to open their books.
If you are wondering which of Mr. Gramm's corporate sponsors might have requested his asssistance in avoiding totalitarian scrutiny of its overseas money-laundering operations, you will find a likely answer here (and here).

UPDATE (via our eminent colleague Atrios): WaPo columnist Dan Froomkin cites the transcript of a White House press briefing at which Tony Snow was asked whether the financiers of terrorism might have already known about the banking cooperative that allowed the CIA and the Treasury Department to monitor international transactions:
MR. SNOW: I am absolutely sure they didn't know about SWIFT. There are -- when you have key government officials around the world saying, we didn't know about it -- there may have been a lot of activity, but it is a program that was not well-known, including among people who have pretty high positions in the banking industry. So, yes, this is not the sort of thing that everybody knew . . . .

Q: But the existence of this organization is no secret. . . .

MR. SNOW: Are you kidding? Are you talking about Swift? When did you know about Swift before? . . .

Q Let me ask a follow up. Are you saying that the financial experts in the terrorist ranks would not know about an organization that works for 7,800 different financial institutions in 200 countries?

MR. SNOW: I'm saying, yes. I think that a lot of people didn't know about the existence of SWIFT.
The traitor Froomkin then provides handy links to the SWIFT website, the Financial Action Task Force website, the SWIFT house organ, and a page describing SWIFT's financial services trade show, reportedly the largest in the world. The valuable seconds our ruthless foes would otherwise have wasted trying to find the same information via Google will now be devoted, we are quite sure, to the concoction of murderous plots against our safety.

UPDATE II: Link to Google removed. If there is even a one percent chance that our ruthless foes may be unfamiliar with the concept of the search engine, we don't want to be the ones who tip them off.

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