By Brigitte L. Nacos
Shortly after 9/11, when the Bush administration intensified efforts to interrupt the flow of money to known terrorist groups, the President and then Secretary Colin Powell said that money is the oxygen of terrorism. While there is no doubt that terrorists need money to finance their operations, they have at all times found ways to support themselves and their violent deeds, often by committing crimes--from drug smuggling to bank robberies to extortion. And whereas terrorists and, even more important, the supporters of terror organizations have used the formal banking system for money transfers, they have also utilized informal fund transfers, namely the so-called hawala system. For years it was not a secret that the United States, many other countries, and the United Nations made great efforts to prevent the formal transfer of money for the benefit of terrorists.
Terrorists and their supporters are long aware, then, that governments follow money trails by monitoring the formal, domestic and international banking systems, including SWIFT, the Belgian based banking consortium, and have have switched to other transfer methods. A recent incident in the Middle East is instructive here: When banks refused to transfer funds from Arab countries to the Hamas-led Palestinian government, Hamas members hand-carried suitcases filled with cash worth millions of dollars into the territories.
Following the money in the banking system is a valuable tool in the large toolbox of counterterrorism, but success or failure here will not break or make terrorists. If you deny terrorists oxygen, they cease to live. If you deny terrorists money via the formal banking system, they may suffer but soon find other financial resources. In that sense, money is not the oxygen of terrorism or terrorists.
So, why is there so much outrage over the recent reports that the U.S. administration is tracking international money transfers through the SWIFT banking consortium? Certainly not because the revelations tipped off terrorists and their supporters, since this information has been available for years from open sources on the Internet. It seems that the controversy is more about finally getting the New York Times than about revelations damaging to counterterrorism. Otherwise, the two other newspapers that revealed the same material (Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times) would be targeted as un-American and accused of treason as well.
When Senator Pat Roberts, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer last night, he attacked the Times, and, after repeated prodding by Blitzer, reluctantly mentioned the Los Angeles Times. But whereas Blitzer mentioned the Wall Street Journal repeatedly as carrying the same revelations, the Senator could not bring himself to say New York Times and Wall Street Journal in the same breath.
If public officials like Senator Roberts or U.S. Representative Peter King or their colleagues truly believe that harm was done to our counterterrorism efforts, why singling out one of the three guilty parties?