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Bank-Records Monitoring Raises Privacy Concerns


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The Bush administration says its program to monitor international financial records has a number of safeguards that prevent violation of privacy rights. But critics note that those safeguards are voluntary, because this particular type of data tracking isn't covered by U.S. laws against government intrusion into private financial records.

NPR's Libby Lewis reports.

LIBBY LEWIS: Once the cat was out of the bag, Bush administration officials took a two-pronged approach. On one hand they groused about having to talk about what they call the terrorist finance-tracking program. They argued that publicity about the data tracking will simply help the terrorists better hide.

Treasury Secretary John Snow shared that sentiment with reporters Friday.

JOHN SNOW: These disclosures go to the sources and the methods that are used that can only help the terrorists. That can only make our job more difficult.

LEWIS: On the other hand, Snow also sounded as though he was thinking of that old adage, when life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.

SNOW: This terrorist-tracking program is really government at its best. It's responsible government, it's effective government. It's government that works.

LEWIS: Stuart Levey runs the data-tracking program for the Treasury Department. He said it consists only of narrowly targeted searches for data connected to individuals suspected of terrorist activity. Levey stressed the limits to the government's access to financial data.

STUART LEVEY: The only way that we will come across an individual's transaction is if they were on one side or another of a transaction with someone that we were doing a terrorist-related search on.

LEWIS: That data is held by a Brussels-based company that routes electronic messages about international financial transactions. It's known by its acronym SWIFT. That stands for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication.

Levey said there are many safeguards built into the data tracking to prevent abuses. Those safeguards, though, are all voluntary. There's no independent oversight of the data-tracking program. That's because SWIFT isn't covered by U.S. laws that restrict government access to private financial records. And that's because it isn't a bank but rather a messaging service.

And that's part of what troubles Barry Steinhardt about the data tracking. He watches technology issues for the American Civil Liberties Union.

BARRY STEINHARDT: SWIFT, after all, is the vehicle by which banks transmit the information. This is a little like the NSA's program where they go directly to Internet service providers or to telephone companies and get a direct feed of data. Really, this is the government's new tactic, which is to go directly to the private sector that controls the method of communication and to get this information directly without any filters and really without anyone to supervise what they're doing.

LEWIS: Congressman Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts who serves on the House Homeland Security Committee, wants Congress to hold hearings. He says the Bush administration's reliance on the International Emergency Economic Powers Act has gone too far. The law gives the president broad powers over foreign transactions to respond to an unusual or extraordinary threat.

ED MARKEY: They claim that it's a temporary emergency that has now been in effect for five years, which allows them to keep this program secret.

LEWIS: But Markey said it's really being used to ensure that Congress and the courts have no voice in the administration's decisions. He said that means what's really being left out here is the Constitution.

Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Libby Lewis
Libby Lewis is an award-winning reporter on the National Desk whose pieces on issues of law, society, criminal justice, the military and social policy can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day to Day, Weekend Edition Saturday, and other NPR shows.