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June 28, 2006
9/11 Commission Chair: 'A Good Program Is Over'

Byron York interviewed Thomas Kean, the 9/11 Commission chairman, on the revelation of the covert terror-finance intelligence operation in the New York Times last week. Kean tells the National Review's White House correspondent that he tried to talk Bill Keller out of publishing the story, and pronounces the program dead as a result of Keller's decision:

Thomas Kean, the co-chairman of the September 11 Commission, was briefed several weeks ago about the Treasury Department’s terrorist-finance program, and after the session, Kean says, “I came away with the idea that this was a good program, one that was legal, one that was not violating anybody’s civil liberties…and something the U.S. government should be doing to make us safer.”

Kean tells National Review Online that the New York Times’s decision to expose the terrorist finance effort — Kean called Times executive editor Bill Keller in an attempt to persuade him not to publish — has done terrible damage to the program. "I think it's over," Kean says. "Terrorists read the newspapers. Once the program became known, then obviously the terrorists were not going to use these methods any more." ...

“That’s the way it is in this war,” says Kean. “There are a number of programs we are using to try to disrupt terrorist activities, and you never know which one is going to be successful. We knew that this one already had been.”

Indeed, this program had shown success in bringing down at least one al-Qaeda leader. It allowed American intel the ability to track the finances of terror suspects without having to breach private data on other transactions, and given the large cash movement required for terror plots, it provided quite a perch for intel agents to surveil the system. This, according to Kean, was one of the most successful post-9/11 efforts by the government in increasing security and targeting terrorists.

Thanks to the Times, that has come to a close. With the operation now made public, the SWIFT cooperative and the EU now have closed ranks and demanded an end to American investigations. The International Herald Tribune, owned by the New York Times, now reports that the administrative subpoenas that made the investigations legal in the US will no longer suffice for Europe:

The Bush administration has defended the program as a crucial element in its campaign against terrorism, but Europe and the United States are increasingly at odds over how to protect civil liberties at the same time.

On Tuesday, the European Parliament's center-right European People's Party, its largest and most influential grouping, called for the EU to open an inquiry into the legality of Swift's actions. Thomas Bickl, a spokesman for the party, said it was concerned that the transfers had been made as part of a covert and untransparent operation. ...

Davies said Swift had received broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from the Treasury Department, which gave its actions a legal basis in the United States. But he said the subpoenas took the form of letters that were issued without judicial consent or due process in the European Union, where only the data protection authorities or the courts have the power to consent to such transfers.

The Europeans have a difficult time understanding why a covert operation to track terrorist financing requires a lack of transparency -- while arguing that such an operation breaches the privacy of Europeans. That seems a rather contradictory statement. Full transparency would mean the publication of all financial data. If Europe wants to keep that data secret, then how could an investigation of illegal transfers of money in support of terrorists offer "full transparency"? The entire idea is to track that money to see where it leads, not to let people know that the transfers have been traced.

This is just another example of European silliness in the face of an existential threat. It shows why the US has limited access to these programs to those who take terrorism seriously -- and the EU, thus far, doesn't qualify. Swift understood the stakes involved, but now that the Times has embarrassed them in Europe by revealing their role in the operation, we can expect their cooperation to come to a screeching halt.

All of this was as predictable as the sun rising in the east, and the Bush administration tried to explain that to Bill Keller on a number of occasions through a number of different people, including Kean. However, Keller remained obtuse either deliberately or through some defect of intellect and ran the story anyway. Thanks to Keller, we will now know much less about terror financing, and therefore much less about the terrorists, their plans, and their resources.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 28, 2006 7:16 AM

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» “A good program is over…” from The Anchoress
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» "I Think It's Over" from Conservative Compendium
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