The US Treasury Secretary, John Snow, said a programme that tracks millions of financial transactions is not an invasion of Americans' privacy but "government at its best" and vital to anti-terrorism operations.
Mr Snow said yesterday that the programme, 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."
In the weeks following the 11 September terror attacks, Treasury officials obtained access to an extensive financial database - the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift. The co-operative, 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 place in a co-operative way between Swift and the Treasury Department," Mr Snow said.
The once-secret programme has drawn protests from Democrats in the US Congress, who say it raises concerns about intrusions on privacy and who see it as the latest step in an aggressive expansion of executive-branch powers by the Bush administration.
Mr Snow defended the newly disclosed programme, 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-Qa'ida, we want to know about it."
At the White House, a presidential spokesman, Tony Snow, said the focus had been to shut off terrorist financing. "It's a good thing to shut off the spigot, the financial spigot," he said. "It does seem to be working."
John Snow said that access to data which had been collected was limited to people with appropriate security clearances. He declined to give specific examples of where the programme had been successful in shutting off terrorist financing.
The administration used broad subpoena powers to get access to the data. In a statement, Swift said it had negotiated with the US Treasury "over the scope and oversight of the subpoenas".
Under the programme, US counter-terrorism analysts could query Swift to look for information on activities by suspected terrorists as part of specific terrorism investigations, a Treasury official said.
Swift handles financial message traffic from 7,800 financial institutions in more than 200 countries. The service, which routes more than 11 million messages every day, mostly captures information on wire transfers and other methods of moving money in and out of the United States.Reuse content