Obama administration signs new SWIFT deal with EU

Remember SWIFT?  The New York Times exposed American efforts to track terrorist funding through the global banking system in 2006, leading to an almost-immediate cessation of cooperation from our Western allies, including Canada, thanks to the publicity it generated.  The fact that it was both legal and effective didn’t change the minds of editors at the NYT in running the story, part of a series of exposés the Times ran on the Bush administration’s efforts to find and destroy terrorist networks around the world.

With the Obama administration now signing a new deal to pursue financial transactions through SWIFT, will the Times be a-changing?

The European Union and the US on Monday signed a revised agreement on sharing banking data to investigate suspected terrorist financing, moving the long-running negotiations over the deal a step closer to completion.

Under the revised deal, an EU official would be posted in the US treasury in Washington to scrutinize the transfer of the European banking data to investigators. …

EU lawmakers had expressed concerns over a lack of privacy guarantees in the original deal, such as the fact that SWIFT technology does not allow for suspicious transactions to be singled out from bulk data, meaning that the financial information of innocent EU citizens could be transferred and stored in the US for up to five years.

To overcome this problem, European governments and the European Commission, which is formally in charge of the talks on the EU side, agreed to set up a SWIFT-data-extraction process in Europe, so US authorities would no longer receive information in bulk.

The old program worked, however, in finding and disrupting terrorist networks.  The SWIFT program allowed the US to find the al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for several plots, including a few against Europe, as Der Spiegel reminds its readers:

Between 2001 and 2009, however, US investigators had access to the names, addresses and account numbers of millions of EU citizens transferring money abroad.

High-level US officials have been pushing for a new deal, stressing that the information sharing has unearthed numerous terrorism leads, included plots which targeted Europe, such as the thwarted plan to blow up trans-Atlantic flights leaving the UK in 2006.

The new deal allows the EU to feed the US information that it finds suspicious in order to allow our intelligence community to track it.  In this manner, the EU hopes to sell the program to skeptics within its parliament and in member nations.  The fact that the US did not abuse its authority or the data in the past will probably help with that argument, something that the New York Times didn’t emphasize when exposing the program and embarrassing those American allies who had been cooperating with the successful effort to stop terrorist plots before they reached fruition.

Will the Times go after the Obama administration in the same manner as it did with Bush?  I certainly hope not, and I’d rather doubt it in any case.