Would the New York Times pubish our nuclear launch codes if it acquired access to them because it "may be a matter of public interest"?
The Bush administration pleaded with the New York Times not to publish its story revealing the existence of a secret government program to track the financial transactions of international terrorists.
The program, headed by the CIA and overseen by the Treasury Department, is known as the "Terrorist Finance Tracking Program" (TFTP) and was begun shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Under it, government officials trace the international financial transactions of those with suspected ties to Al Qaeda by examing data -- only after obtaining an administrative subpoena -- of the Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT).
SWIFT is not a financial institution but a Belgian cooperative owned by more than 2,200 organizations that oversees the routing of funds between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions. The CIA, under the TFTP, examines mainly wire transfers and other methods of moving money overseas and into and out of the United States. Under the program, for example, the CIA could track funds from a personal bank account of a suspected terrorist in Jordan to a mosque in Philadelphia.
It does not examine most routine financial transactions confined to the United States. The government uses the data for terrorism investigations only, not such things as tax fraud or drug trafficking investigations.
According to legal experts, TFTP is not remotely illegal. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that the right to privacy does not extend to protect information in the hands of third parties, such as SWIFT, involving financial transactions. Nor do the provisions of the 1978 Right to Financial Privacy Act apply, because SWIFT is not a financial institution.
TFTP has been a very successful tool in the war on terror and has been an important part of the administration's promise, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, to include a financial component among its "weapons" to fight terrorists. TFTP led to the capture of the al Qaeda operative known as "Hambali," who is believed to have planned the bombing of a Bali resort in 2002. It also led to the prosecution and conviction of Uzair Paracha, a Brooklyn man, on terrorism-related charges, for laundering $200,000 through a Karachi bank to assist an al Qaeda terrorist in Pakistan.