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June 23, 2006
ACLU, Right On Schedule

The ACLU has jumped into the fray over the publication of national-security efforts to trace financial transactions of suspected terrorists and their organizations in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal this morning. To no one's great shock, the ACLU has leveled more accusations of malfeasance against the Bush administration:

"The revelation of the CIA's financial spying program is another example of the Bush administration's abuse of power. The invasion of our personal financial information, without notification or judicial review, is contrary to the fundamental American value of privacy and must be stopped now. It seems the administration feels entitled to flip through all of our checkbooks. How many other secret spying programs has the Bush administration enacted without Congress, the courts or the public knowing? We need a full accounting of what information has been demanded by the U.S. government, how they have used it, with whom it was shared, and how they intend to repair this grave breech of trust. This program is a glaring example of how this government thinks nothing of widespread abuse of power.

"The government contends that the program is legal since Swift is ultimately a messaging service and not a bank, exempting it from U.S. banking laws. However, Swift is established and owned by banks to assist directly in banking activities. Swift is subject to both U.S. and European law, and it is wrong for the U.S. to demand information without following the established channels.

"Once again, this administration has performed an end-run around the legislature, allowing for no Congressional approval or oversight, and violating the freedoms Americans falsely believed they could take for granted. Congress should call them to account."

John at Stop The ACLU has this to say in response:

There is probably no other time that a proper balance between civil liberties and national security becomes more important than in wartime. During times of war, sometimes unusual responses are implemented, often requiring suspension of certain liberties. Of course war opens the opportunity for abuse by governments, and the ACLU are right to watch for them. However, the ACLU in its absolutist perception of freedom, only worries about one side of the equation, civil liberties. It pays no attention to the national security side of things, not only ignoring it, but working against it.

One of the most revealing occurances towards the ACLU’s absolutist position on national security and its recent evolution can be seen in the action the board of directors took at its Oct 1989 meeting: It dropped section (a) from its policy, “Wartime Sedition Act.” Before, the ACLU held that it “would not participate (save for fundamental due process violations) in defense of any person believed to be “cooperating” with or acting on behalf of the enemy.” This policy was based on the recognition that “our own military enemies are now using techniques of propaganda which may involve an attempt to prevent the Bill of Rights to serve the enemy rather than the people of the United States.” In making its determination as to whether someone were cooperating with the enemy, “the Union will consider such matters as past activities and associations, sources of financial support, relations with enemy agents, the particular words and conduct involved, and all other relevant factors for informed judgement.” Source

All of this is now omitted from the Official ACLU policy!

Actually, it gets worse than that. The ACLU enjoys a large membership of attorneys, many of whom work in specific Constitutional law regarding civil liberties. They have a vast wealth of talent from which to call for in-depth analyses. And yet, in reviewing their statement alleging criminality and abuse of power against the government, the ACLU cannot cite any statute or regulation violated by the Swift project. Not one. Why? Because, as the New York Times report explicitly states, it doesn't violate any laws at all.

Not only that, but anyone operating within the US banking system -- at least at those facilities insured by the FDIC and FSLIC -- the government has access to data on individual banking customers whenever it wants to access it. Any institution insured by the federal government has to give federal regulators access to their records during any extensive examination. Not only that, but since most accounts pay interest, the IRS also gets all of the information on these accounts, including taxpayer numbers and other private information.

However, in this case, the Swift project targeted only those people already indentified as terrorists or terrorist financiers, and the focus was on international transactions. The government brought in outside auditors to ensure that the information requested remained within the boundaries of their power. Most of all, George Bush told us on a number of occasions that the United States would track these transactions around the world to find terrorists and their enablers. The project itself has never been a secret; only the methods used remained clandestine.

At least they remained clandestine until now. The New York Times and its two reporters have sold out our national security to sell a few papers, and in this case told us absolutely nothing we haven't known for five years except the specific methods used. That information only helps one set of people: the terrorists we want to catch and stop before they can kill more people, Americans or otherwise. And the ACLU, instead of actually reading the article and determining that the Times had its head up Bill Keller's backside, sends out its typical knee-jerk jeremiad accusing Washington of stomping its jackbooted feet on our civil liberties but somehow cannot be bothered to explain what laws they claim have been broken.

I wonder how the ACLU's board will deal with this criticism. Of course, we won't know, because the ACLU is about to impose a ban on public criticism of the organization by its board members. Some civil liberties are more precious than others at the ACLU, after all.

UPDATE: An e-mailer sent this to Instapundit, one who worked for Swift:

What has not been stressed is that SWIFT is not used for individuals. It is used for processing money transfers, stock transfers and bond transfers from companies, governments, banks, insurance companies and NGO's. What we essentially had on file was the holdings for almost all our clients and the clearance data for these transactions dating back for years. We had to keep all this on file to satisfy all the governmental regulations on taxations, etc.

What the NY Times has essentially done is open up to the terrorists the trails of all their transactions and how the banking procedures of money laundering was done for them by the system. They have essentially stopped dead the ability to track this money and keep it from being put in the hands of our worst enemies. Whether the terrorists might have guessed that their money was being transferred is a moot point. The NY Times had told them that their worst fears have been realized and that they need to find another way to move money around the world. They know it for sure now. Thank you, Bill Keller, and when the nice young man or woman from down the street is killed by one of these terrorists I can thank you for that as well.

Glenn made a great analogy posing the NYT as the media equivalent of toxic-waste dumpers. It looks like the ACLU might qualify as the lobbyist for the toxic waste dumper.

UPDATE II: King Banaian explains what SWIFT does for international banking. Its cost means the transactions reviewed will hardly be your average checkbook transaction:

SWIFT transactions are typically large size because the cost of using the system is substantial. When I lived in Ukraine I only used SWIFT for receiving sums of about $10000, typically quarterly, for payment of expenses. The information on the slip that I would receive had codes for the banks, the accounts being transferred from and to (in both those cases, mine -- I could not get dollars without a Ukrainian bank account) and the amount to be transferred.

About 90% of the messages between banks are sent via SWIFT. If al Qaeda wanted to be sure to keep its activity private, it would want to use telex or phone messages -- older technologies pre-dating SWIFT. It can use a mail payment from bank to bank. Those are still possible and some banks use them, many in the developing world. But it slows down the transfer process; for example, the mail transfer gets caught up in two countries' postal systems.

Perhaps the ACLU can explain their hysterical shrieking about the government peeking into everyone's savings accounts with this as the context.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 23, 2006 7:01 PM

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