WASHINGTON -- Treasury Secretary John Snow yesterday said a program tracking millions of financial transactions was not an invasion of Americans' privacy but ``government at its best" and vital to the war on terrorism.
Snow told a news conference that the program, run by the CIA and overseen by the Treasury Department, was ``responsible government, it's effective government, it's government that works."
``It's entirely consistent with democratic values, with our best legal traditions," Snow said.
The once-secret program, which has been going on since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, drew protests from Democrats in Congress, who said it raises concerns about intrusions on privacy and who saw it as the latest step in an aggressive Bush administration expansion of executive branch powers.
Snow defended the newly disclosed program, saying it was an effective tool in tracking the financial operations of terrorists.
``By following the money we've been able to locate operatives, we've been able to locate their financiers, we've been able to chart the terrorist networks, and we've been able to bring the terrorists to justice," he said.
``If people are sending money to help Al Qaeda, we want to know about it," Snow said.
He said Congress had been briefed on the program.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Tony Snow said the focus had been on shutting off terrorist financing.
``It's a good thing to shut off the spigot, the financial spigot," he said. ``It does seem to be working."
In the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks, Treasury officials obtained access to an extensive international financial data base -- the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication .
The cooperative, based in Belgium, handles financial message traffic from thousands of financial institutions in more than 200 countries.
``It's important to understand that very significant protocols and safeguards have been put in pace in a cooperative way between Swift and the Treasury Department," Snow said.
He said that access to the data that had been collected was limited to people with security clearances.
Snow declined to give specific examples of where the program had been successful in shutting off terrorist financing, but said that he had assured himself that it was working.
The administration had used broad subpoena powers to get access to that data.
In a statement, the worldwide interbank society said that it had negotiated with the US Treasury ``over the scope and oversight of the subpoenas."
Disclosure of the program comes on the heels of intense controversy over President Bush's ordering of National Security Agency surveillance of telephone calls and e-mails of private citizens.
Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts and cochairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, said yesterday that there were disturbing similarities between the two programs.
``Like the domestic surveillance program exposed last December, the Bush administration's efforts to tap into the financial records of thousands of Americans appear to rely on justifications concocted without regard to current law," Markey said in a statement.
Representative Barney Frank, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, said he was ``deeply concerned" about people's privacy.
Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union called the program a ``frightening invasion of civil liberties."
Edward Yingling of the American Bankers Association said banks were working to strike the right balance between ``protecting customer privacy and stopping terrorist financing."
James Nason, an official with the Swiss Bankers Association, said his group was surprised to hear about the US effort.
``We had no idea this was going on at all," he said.
Republicans defended the effort. Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee had been briefed on the program and had ``full confidence in the effectiveness of, and the legal authority for, this vital antiterrorism tool," said Frist spokeswoman Amy Call.
Snow insisted that the effort was not ``data mining or trolling through the private financial records of Americans," nor ``a fishing expedition."
Asked how many transaction searches had been made, Stuart Levey, Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said there were ``at least tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands."
The consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton was retained to audit and review the US activities in the program, Levey said.
``They have found consistently the government is not abusing this data," Levey said.
Under the program, officials said that the US counterterrorism analysts could query the Society to look for information on activities by suspected terrorists as part of specific terrorism investigations.
They would do so by plugging in a name or names, the official said.
The Society handles financial message traffic from 7,800 financial institutions in more than 200 countries.
The service, which routes more than 11 million messages each day, mostly captures information on wire transfers and other methods of moving money in and out of the United States.
It doesn't execute these money transfers.
The service generally doesn't detect private, individual transactions in the United States, such as withdrawals from an ATM or bank deposits. It is aimed mostly at international transfers.
The existence of the program was first reported Thursday night on the websites of The
The decision to publish was ``a tough call; it was not a decision made lightly," said Doyle McManus, the Washington bureau chief at the Los Angeles Times.
Treasury Department officials spent 90 minutes Thursday meeting with the newspaper's reporters, stressing the legality of the program and urging the paper to not publish a story on the program, McManus said in a telephone interview.