In the last few days, the German media and German politicians have been on an angry rampage against America’s Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP). The cause for their agitation are reports that the EU plans to continue permitting U.S. intelligence agencies access to some of the bank transfer data stored by the inter-bank network SWIFT.
“In a ‘blitz’ action,” the margin of maneuver of U.S. terror-investigators is supposed to have been “massively extended.” The talk is of “highly-sensitive bank data” and of “American snoops [Schnüfflern]” who will be permitted “to spy on the entire range of transactions.” There is supposedly no dependable legal basis for the program and one “fears abuse.” All of the above according to Spiegel Online in an article titled “EU Allows the U.S. to Spy on Bank Accounts”.
On the nightly news on Germany’s ZDF public television, star news presenter Klaus Kleber felt that it was relevant to inform his audience that the SWIFT server in the USA is located “right nearby” the CIA headquarters. ZDF’s “terrorism expert” Elmar Theveßen could placidly affirm that only a single arrest had ever been facilitated by the program.
Horst Seehofer, governor of Bavaria and head of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), describes the EU concessions as an “absolute abomination [Unding]” and a “scandal.” Guido Westerwelle, chair of Germany’s economically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), deems the TFTP to be “completely unacceptable” and has demanded that “the project must be stopped.” Peter Schaar, Germany’s federal commissioner for data protection, believes that “the Americans” will in the future also be monitoring bank transfers from Hamburg to Cologne. Green Party politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit went so far as to warn of a “putsch” against the project in the European parliament. Old habits die hard.
Even for German standards, it is remarkable how unscrupulously falsehoods are being fired off at readers and television viewers. What an amazing concentration of paranoia, hysteria, and ignorance.
The TFTP is a program that the U.S. established in 2001 with Belgium, Spain, and other European countries, in order to trace the money flows of terror networks. The program was initially kept secret. No laws were broken and extensive precautionary measures were taken in order to assure that civil rights would not be violated. A super power’s military might is no help to it in the fight against terror networks. The conflict is not about destroying armies, but rather terror cells. The challenge is to identify the latter. In this connection, intelligence on money flows -– on the origins of payments that known or suspected terrorists receive, or on the destination of payments from known terror sponsors –- is of existential importance. Thanks to TFTP, it has been possible to uncover the ties between potential terrorists and their sponsors by following money flows.
In 2006, the New York Times made the program public, despite the urgent appeals of the American administration, leading senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties, and the chair of the 9/11 Commission. Obsessed by its hostility to the Bush administration, in so doing, the Times undermined the program’s effectiveness and thereby, yet again, the security of both the United States and other countries.
Before the Times revealed the program, TFTP had contributed to the uncovering of numerous terrorist cells and al-Qaeda money-laundering operations. It had also made possible the arrest of top terrorist Riduan Isamuddin, sometimes known as the “Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia.” Isamuddin was one of the principal organizers of the 2002 Bali bombings, in which over 200 people were killed. On the background of these facts, it is not hard to form a proper estimation of the quality of the aforesaid ZDF “terrorism expert” who mentions none of these details and speaks only of an unspecified “single arrest.” Without TFTP, the mass murderer Isamuddin would still be at large. This is apparently no problem as far as Elmar Theveßen is concerned –- since, after all, personal data protection is also involved.
ZDF news presenter Klaus Kleber introduced the subject of TFTP on Monday’s nightly news by asking his audience: “Did you know that the CIA is watching every time you transfer money to Spain?” As even the New York Times admitted in its June 2006 article, the program is limited to “tracing transactions of people suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda.” So it is not a matter of “your” money transfers “to Spain,” much less of every one of them.
Intelligence agents are only permitted to request data from SWIFT when they are in possession of information linking particular persons to al-Qaeda. They are required to document the relevant information each time they make a request and to archive the data resulting from their searches. A board of independent auditors from several banks checks the search requests, in order to guarantee that only the transactions of terror suspects are being traced. All use of the data for the purpose of combating anything other than terror-related crime is forbidden, including, for instance, drug trafficking, money laundering, and tax evasion.
The previous American administration had, moreover, informed leading senators from both parties as well as the 9/11 Commission about the program.
The German public is being kept completely in the dark concerning the facts about TFTP and the relevant background. This represents a major failure of the German news media and of German politicians, who are expressing their opinions while evidently understanding nothing about the program. Of course, Germans do not have to buy Spiegel. But the dumbing down of the German public by ZDF is paid for by the taxpayers themselves!
The above article first appeared in German on Joachim Steinhöfel’s blog here. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.