The Treasury Department has been using internet banking programs containing transactions of thousands of Americans to track terrorism money since September 11, 2001. The lead official at the Department of Treasury explains the need for the program.
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U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow told reporters today that the program that secretly monitors international banking records has saved American lives and has operated within the law.
JOHN SNOW, U.S. Treasury Secretary:
It's a program that is entirely consistent with our democratic values, entirely consistent with our best legal traditions. And, in fact, I'd go beyond that: I'd say this is a program that builds on those traditions and strengthens them.
The program began after the 9/11 attacks and centers on a little-known Belgian-based banking cooperative, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, now known as SWIFT, which routes about $6 trillion U.S. dollars a day between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions.
SWIFT functions as a kind of intermediary between financial institutions. When someone instructs his or her bank, for example, to transfer funds abroad to another party, that information is channeled through SWIFT and includes the names of both sender and the recipient, bank account numbers, and the amount of assets being transferred.
The request and information are passed onto the recipient's bank, which then transfers the requested money.
One Democrat on Capitol Hill today called the government's monitoring of these international transactions an invasion of privacy. Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
REP. ED MARKEY (D), Massachusetts: The administration cannot claim that a temporary emergency lasts for five years to justify operating in secret, because potentially that means that the temporary emergency could last forever.
This administration is in violation of the United States' Constitution. In the Bush administration, there are no checks and balances to look at the American people's checks and balances.
The existence of the program was revealed by several newspapers this morning. Treasury officials said they had asked some newspapers not to publish the story.