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The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication is probably not thrilled to be showing up in newspaper articles. Financial institutions in Brussels are not known for enjoying the limelight. They didn’t have much choice, as they received seemingly legitimate subpoenas from the US Treasury Department, but they will now have to answer questions from their member institutions who will be very put out about this entire affair. The Wall Street Journal might be acceptable, but articles appearing in common general newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times [a California newspaper!] is really not how things are done.

[Links to the newspaper reports are at the bottom of the Wikipedia article.]

This is no surprise to al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden is a Saudi millionaire who owned several international companies and started his extremist career moving money around to finance anti-Soviet operations in Afghanistan. He is well versed in international money laundering, and is aware of the monitoring points.

There are banks like Clearstream Banking SA that seem to come up in international highjinks. Among Clearstream’s customers have been Bank of Credit and Commerce International, Crédit Lyonnais, Banco Ambrosiano, and Bahrain International Bank. Bahrain International Bank is suspected of being affiliated with bin Laden.

Of course they also have normal customers, like the Carlyle Group, so they can’t be called totally suspect.

The US government on multiple occasions has talked about tracing the financial transactions of terrorist groups, so they are obviously going to be working through clearing houses like SWIFT. That hasn’t been a secret before, and it isn’t a secret that they will continue to do so. They have prosecuted people for giving financial aid to terrorists, but never to al Qaeda. Most if not all of these prosecutions have dealt with Palestinian groups.

The problem is not what was done, but how much of it was done. Once again they have been hovering up data and expanding the hayloft. They seem to believe that having humongous amounts of data will somehow magically produce the answers, without considering how they are going to search that data.

I have no objection in principle to the government having data, but having just received a letter from the Veterans Administration, I have grave concerns about the government’s ability to protect that data. Every day, it seems, there is a new report of private data from government files being stolen or misplaced. They can’t possibly have enough people to process the data they have collected so we will find out at some point that they have out-sourced the process to a contractor, making it even less secure.

Even if you ignore the leaks they make for political reasons, the fact is these people don’t know what is important, and they can’t protect the information they have. They don’t bother to encrypt privacy information and they let people transfer all kind of sensitive information to laptops.

In Afghanistan reporters were buying intelligence information on “memory sticks” stolen from the American military. The information shouldn’t have been on the portable devices in the first place.

The real problem isn’t that the newspapers are reporting this stuff, it’s that the security in place makes it possible. This is just one of the many examples of the incompetence of this administration. Congress should stop asking for information from the White House and just hire a couple of reporters to get it for them.


1 Steve Bates { 06.26.06 at 11:58 am }

In Afghanistan reporters were buying intelligence information on “memory sticks” stolen from the American military. The information shouldn’t have been on the portable devices in the first place.

Sorry to latch onto this last and least bit of your post, but I am reminded of an article I read recently on Bruce Schneier’s site. A company’s own IT staff cooked up a virus, installed it on a bunch of memory sticks and scattered them in the parking lot of their own company. The virus was designed to find and mail back passwords gathered from the machine into which the stick was plugged. Many installations of Windows prevent autorun from, say, a floppy disk, but not from a USB memory stick. The IT staff received an astonishing number of emails of passwords from the company’s own staff who fell for the notion of “free” thumb drives. Now there’s “social engineering” at its finest.

Back to topic. I now operate on the assumption that any branch of government, as well as any corporation that has an interest, has any information about me that it wants. It doesn’t change my behavior much, because I’m not interested in wreaking havoc. But I suspect Osama bin Laden makes the same assumption, and that he has separate avenues for laundering large sums of money, and that all this surreptitiously acquired bank transaction info has not affected his behavior at all, either. And that’s not good, because he obviously is interested in wreaking havoc.

Like you, Bryan, I lack faith in two things: the government’s ability to protect the information it gathers, and the government’s ability to use it in any constructive nonpolitical way to enhance national security. All that hay they’re gathering is bound to end up producing nothing but, oh well, you know, what hay usually produces in the long run.

2 Bryan { 06.26.06 at 12:38 pm }

Having once been a system administrator at a college, I have cursed the ready availability of removable media, which at the time were 160K 5¼” floppy disks.

There is no regard for real security among these people. The only secrets they protect are political.

If people understood the Islamic attitude towards banking, they would know why they are not apt to get much of any worth from Islamic fundamentalists, who believe charging interest on money is evil. Islamic “banks” are more like cooperatives than financial institutions. Money transfers are often made like the medieval Jewish banking system, a matter of letters of credit, rather than transfers of money, with transfers of actual assets taking place at intervals.

What people in the West refuse to understand is that what we would call smuggling is a normal and “honest” method of earning a living in much of the Middle East.

At lot of people making donations to buy medical supplies for Muslim countries and been swept up in this paranoia and Osama bin Laden is still free.