The 9/11 Commission castigated the CIA for neglecting to collect and analyze intelligence about terrorist financing. It noted that “information about terrorist money helps us to understand [al-Qaeda] networks, search them out, and disrupt their operations.” In response, the Bush administration initiated a highly secret joint CIA-Treasury program to tap into the electronic records of a Belgian financial clearinghouse known as SWIFT, which tracks the approximately $6 trillion in funds that flow among financial institutions around the world.
The New York Times revealed the existence of the SWIFT program in a front-page story in June 2006 written by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen. One of the consequences was that European governments, which had accepted the program when it was secret, were compelled to attack it and periodically shut it down. Yesterday, after a hiatus of months, the European Parliament agreed once again to let the program resume, subject to stricter controls and oversight.
The most curious aspect of this latest wrinkle in the saga is the way in which the New York Times is reporting on it. Here is a nugget from yesterday's story:
Questions about sharing bank data arose in 2006, when it emerged that a Belgian cooperative responsible for routing about $6 trillion daily among banks, brokerage houses, stock exchanges and other institutions had provided information about transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks [emphasis added].
“When it emerged” is a classic in the annals of the passive voice, on a par with Richard Nixon’s famous “mistakes were made” of Watergate fame. The fact is that knowledge of the SWIFT program did not simply “emerge.” It was disclosed by the Times in a story that first its own ombudsman, Byron Calame, and later its general counsel, Solomon B. Watson IV, came to disavow, and one which caused severe damage to the American counterterrorism effort, damage that continues, as the Times’s own reporting makes plain, to the present moment.