George W. Bush has said that it was "disgraceful" for the media to report that the United States is monitoring bank transactions. Republican Rep. Peter King has called for a criminal prosecution of the reporters involved, and the National Review has demanded that the White House revoke the New York Times' press credentials.
There's just one little problem here. The transaction-monitoring program described by the Times and other media outlets wasn't much of a secret anyway. As the Boston Globe reports today, "public records -- government documents posted on the Internet, congressional testimony, guidelines for bank examiners, and even an executive order President Bush signed in September 2001 -- describe how US authorities have openly sought new tools to track terrorist financing since 2001."
Among those records is a public report prepared for the United Nations Security Council in 2002, a report that specifically acknowledged that the U.S. government was monitoring transactions through the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Teleommunication, or SWIFT. "The United States has begun to apply new monitoring techniques to spot and verify suspicious transactions," the report said, and it recommended that other countries begin to do the same.
One of the report's authors, a former U.S. diplomat named Victor Comras, tells the Globe that the United States has "spent the last four years bragging [about] how effective we have been in tracking terrorist financing." Unless terrorists were "pretty dumb" Comras says, they had to have known all along that the U.S. government was watching their financial transactions.
So is the reaction from the right a little overblown? Roger Cressey, who worked as a senior counterterrorism official at the White House until 2003, seems to think so. "There have been public references to SWIFT before," Cressey tells the Globe. "The White House is overreaching when they say [the New York Times committed] a crime against the war on terror. It has been in the public domain before."