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U.S. Tracks International Financial Transactions

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The Bush administration has been secretly tracking international financial records. Claiming authority under a presidential declaration of emergency after September 11th, U.S. officials have used administrative subpoenas to tap into a global database that moves many billions of dollars around the world, going around banking's ordinary privacy protections to look at transactions by Americans and others who are moving money overseas.

We're joined by Glenn Simpson, of The Wall Street Journal. Good morning, Mr. Simpson.

Mr. GLENN SIMPSON (Reporter, The Wall Street Journal): Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: What is known about this program and how it works?

Mr. SIMPSON: A reasonably large amount at this point. Essentially, there is data kept by this organization, which is known as SWIFT. It's kept in the United States; it's available to U.S. officials to query when they are attempting to track financial activity by suspected terrorists. So an analyst for the Treasury Department, say, or the CIA, can put a name into this vast database and see if the individual or the group is moving money, pretty much anywhere in the world. The beauty of this program, if you're a counter-terrorism official, is that this group SWIFT handles most of the wire traffic, the wire transfers, that take place all around the globe.

WERTHEIMER: From brokerages, from banks, from all sorts of financial institutions here and overseas.

Mr. SIMPSON: Right. Essentially, it's an information traffic handler. It doesn't actually move the money, it moves the information that tells banks who's doing what.

WERTHEIMER: I understand that this involves mostly overseas transactions, would it effect most Americans, or would most people not be effected at all?

Mr. SIMPSON: Most Americans don't do business or transact with foreign entities, so they probably would not come up. There's some exceptions to that. Some domestic transactions are communicated via SWIFT, but, overall, this is a cross-border financial activity device. So unless you're doing business overseas, you probably aren't going to get caught in this net.

WERTHEIMER: Is it a program that's in any way comparable to NSA's domestic eavesdropping program, what the president called a terrorist surveillance program?

Mr. SIMPSON: You know, I guess in the broadest sense, you could say it is, in the sense that it's an extraordinary measure that was cooked up after 9/11 that otherwise never would have been. But financial activity is not terribly comparable to, you know, telephonic privacy. It's just not considered legally to be similar, and there are, in fact, many laws giving the government power to engage in financial surveillance.

WERTHEIMER: Is there any indication that this program has produced any useful information?

Mr. SIMPSON: There's ample indications that it's been very useful. I mean, U.S. officials have hinted for a long time that extraordinary financial surveillance capabilities have enabled them to crack terrorist cells and to avert attacks. The one specific that I happen to know about is that they do have some intelligence on the bombings last summer in London that came out of this program.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Mr. Simpson.

Mr. SIMPSON: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Glenn Simpson, of The Wall Street Journal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.