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New York Times and terrorism: When lapdogs roar

Ever since Treasury’s press secretary, Tony Fratto, had been read into the classified and closely held Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) program, he had prepared for a leak. We had constructed the program to help track terrorist financing legally, effectively, and in secret. But we assumed all along that the program would see the light of day. Fratto knew the call would come. When it did, he was surprised it had taken so long.

The Treasury Department and officials involved in Europe made a serious attempt to keep the program quiet and to limit those with knowledge of its operations. But we always knew that the program would be revealed. From the outset we designed the program to ensure that it would stand up to legal and public scrutiny. The mechanics of the program were far more open than those of a classic intelligence operation. More foreign officials—especially more of those who were not traditionally in the intelligence business—were aware of the program than had been the case with any other highly sensitive counterterrorism program. The backlash that had come in 2005, when the New York Times reported the existence of the White House’s highly secret Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP), had been a searing experience. Not just the U.S. government, but SWIFT executives, too, were nervous. The SWIFT officials feared their cooperation would be construed in the same critical light.

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