Cohen defends U.S. access to Euro bank data

April 9, 2010

Picking up where we left off yesterday, Treasury official David Cohen spent much of the second half of his speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explaining the SWIFT program, or the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP), as Treasury calls it.

The program allows information about European bank transactions to be shared with Treasury upon request to assist with terrorist investigations.

I and a couple others on this very blog have expressed misgivings about the scope of the program.  I wrote in February that, “There may be sensitive or classified details, but what would be helpful is if Treasury could give us some actual aggregate stats on how successful the program has been to judge whether it’s worth keeping.”

Well, my wish has been granted.  Leaving aside all the problems with Cohen’s speech on Tuesday, he provided not only program stats, but examples of the program’s effectivness.  But let him tell you about it:

[The U.S.] permitted a noted French counter-terrorism expert, Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiére, to review the TFTP on behalf of the EU, and offered him unprecedented access to the program. 

In late 2008, Judge Bruguiére issued a report in which he reached two critical conclusions.  First, he found that the Treasury Department had implemented significant and effective controls and safeguards that ensure the protection of personal data.  Second, he reported that the TFTP generated significant value, in particular for countries in the EU, where over 1,300 TFTP-derived leads concerning specific terrorist threats had been shared with Member States.  Judge Bruguiére reiterated both of these conclusions in a second report on the TFTP, which he issued in early 2010.

Judge Bruguiére’s conclusion that the TFTP is an extremely effective counter-terrorism investigative tool–not only for the United States, but for Europe as well–is emphatically true.   TFTP-generated leads have aided thousands of investigations, here and abroad, by providing law enforcement and counter-terrorism officials with information that helps them follow the money to the violent extremists who are dead-set on doing us harm.  This is the stuff of everyday, nose-to-the-grindstone work that protects our mutual security in often imperceptible, but nonetheless consequential, ways.

Let me offer some examples: TFTP-generated leads have assisted in the investigations of the 2002 Bali bombings; the Van Gogh murder in the Netherlands in 2004; the plan to attack John F. Kennedy airport in 2007; the Islamic Jihad Union plot to attack Germany that same year; the Mumbai attacks in 2008; and the Jakarta hotel attacks in 2009. 

Information gleaned from the TFTP has been used productively in investigations of several al Qaeda-linked terrorist attacks, including the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 2005 bombings in the London Underground. 

Results from searches of TFTP data have also aided investigations that have disrupted several planned al-Qaeda plots.  For example, we passed results from TFTP searches to European governments during their 2006 investigation into the al Qaeda-directed plot to attack transatlantic airline flights between the UK and the U.S.  The plot was foiled, and in mid-September 2009 three individuals were convicted for their involvement and each was sentenced to at least thirty years in prison.

To take another example, in October 2008, eight individuals were arrested in Spain for their suspected involvement with al Qaeda.  European partners provided us information outlining these individuals’ suspected connection to terrorism, and TFTP information clarified connections between the targets and other individuals in Spain, Morocco, and the Netherlands.  Many of those arrested are now serving jail time.

As of today, we have shared over 1,550 TFTP-generated reports with our European colleagues…

Good!  Cohen may be a suspect salesman, but this part of his speech was an important message and I’m grateful to the intelligence professionals and financial experts that authorized these examples  (if they had been classified before) to be released to the general public.  If these details are accurate, Europe should be ashamed that allowed an important tool like this to expire.

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