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Another White House secret: SWIFT tracking

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TESS VIGELAND: The Bush Administration has been secretly using a massive banking database to track people it suspects of financing terrorism. The news — first published in three major US newspapers — comes several months after the White House was forced to defend its sweeping phone surveillance program. The global databank, called SWIFT, is based in Belgium. From the European Desk in London, Stephen Beard reports.

STEPHEN BEARD: The White House has admitted financial eavesdropping on a major scale. The administration’s been accessing private financial messages handled by the SWIFT organization.

Based just outside Brussels, SWIFT serves thousands of banks around the world.. It handles a daily traffic of 11 million messages. Among them transfers moving money in and out of the US.

The White House says accessing SWIFT’s records has been part of the bid to choke off terrorist funds. Jeffry Robinson, an expert on terrorist finance, says he finds the whole thing rather dubious.

JEFFRY ROBINSON: You don’t need to get into the SWIFT transactions — interbank transactions of our personal accounts — anymore than you need to suddenly trawl through everybody’s phone calls. If you’ve got specific information go after that.

In spite of White House assurances, the worry is that the US has been on a fishing expedition and the data collected may one day be used in other areas of investigation, like tax evasion for example.

There could be international repercussions. SWIFT has apparently divulged to the US far more than data relating to American transactions, says Andrew Hilton of the CSFI think tank

ANDREW HILTON: The subpoena which was issued against it by the Americans appears to have captured all the data that SWIFT has been collecting between all the many countries that SWIFT operates in.

SWIFT is clearly embarrassed. The organization is supposed to offer bank customers a secure and confidential message service.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

TESS VIGELAND: There is also word that the Bush Administration asked the New York Times and Los Angeles Times not to print today’s stories on the bank surveillance program. The Wall Street Journal says it didn’t receive a similar request.

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