I’ve been surprised at the lack of uproar over the discovery that the CIA has been data mining SWIFT transfer archives. I suppose it’s because this is far from the first troubling secret breech of the right to privacy by the Bush administration, and most people – the ones that don’t have large sums of money – generally don’t have any banking privacy anyway. But this new secret program touches a core Bush constituency: white-collar criminals. If Bush is able to secretly monitor transactions in the name of anti-terrorism, a future Democratic government might be able to use it against money laundering and accounting fraud. That’s surely something the Republican Party could never stand for.
SWIFT is headquartered in Belgium, but operates computer centres both in the US and the EU, so the company probably was not in a position to refuse the government’s request. According to page 4 of the original NY Times article: “Intelligence officials were so eager to use the Swift data that they discussed having the C.I.A. covertly gain access to the system, several officials involved in the talks said.” If they were prepared to break in to get the data, there was little to be gained by the firm taking a stand.
But I note in today’s Le Monde something about this affair that I find troubling.
Le conseil d’administration de Swift a Ã©tÃ© mis au courant de l’accord secret, prÃ©cise le New York Times, ainsi que les banques centrales du G10 (Canada, Allemagne, France, Italie, Japon, Pays-Bas, SuÃ¨de, Suisse, Angleterre, Etats-Unis, ainsi que la Banque centrale europÃ©enne).
InterrogÃ©e vendredi aprÃ¨s-midi par Le Monde.fr, la Banque nationale de Belgique confirme qu’elle a Ã©tÃ© mise au courant de l’accord passÃ© par les services amÃ©ricains avec Swift. Cependant, une position officielle n’a pas Ã©tÃ© arrÃªtÃ©e. La BNB dirige la supervision des activitÃ©s de Swift par les banques centrales du G10. Elle justifie le fait de n’avoir pas signalÃ© le programme secret aux autoritÃ©s, estimant qu’il n’y avait pas de risque lÃ©gal en Belgique. […] La BNB pense que son image ne devrait pas Ãªtre mise en cause dans cette affaire, car sa mission de supervision se borne Ã vÃ©rifier la stabilitÃ© des marchÃ©s, pas Ã “s’immiscer” dans les accords passÃ©s par la direction de Swift.
SWIFT’s board of directors was informed of this secret agreement [with American authorities to grant access to transaction databases], according to the New York Times, as were the central banks of the G10 (Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, the US, and the European Central Bank).
Asked for comment Friday afternoon by LeMonde.fr, the Belgian National Bank confirmed that it had been informed of the agreement between SWIFT and American intelligence services. However, no official position had been taken on it. The BNB is in charge of the G10’s central banks’ oversight of SWIFT’s activities. It has defended its decision not to inform authorities on the grounds that it did not believe the program had any legal consequences in Belgium. […] The BNB does not believe its reputation should be tarnished in this affair because its responsibility is limited to ensuring market stability, not “interfering” in agreements made by SWIFT’s board.
As with rendition and secret prisons, it looks like the US has once again undertaken an action in the so-called “war on terrorism” that undermines rule of law and has an international scope, and in doing so has informed European authorities at some level. But for some reason, those same European authorities agree to keep the secret, and we only find out when the NY Times or the Washington Post finally breaks the story.
That is unacceptable. The rights of Europeans are being violated by the American government with at least the partial consent of elements of their own governments. “Not my legal responsibility” is not a shield against complicity. We’re used to allegations of secrecy and poor accountability in the EU government, but it seems that EU national governments are not a whole lot better.