President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and White House spokesman Tony Snow may be in a tither about the New York Times story on the US monitoring of SWIFT financial transactions, but "The information was fairly well known by terrorism financing experts back in 2002," reports Victor Comras at his Counterterrorism Blog. In fact, though news coverage hasn't mentioned it, the barebones info has been available online since the UN Al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Group posted its December 2002 report (33-page pdf document). Comras quotes from paragraph 31 (on page 11 of the pdf):
The settlement of international transactions is usually handled through correspondent banking relationships or large-value message and payment systems, such as the SWIFT, Fedwire or CHIPS systems in the United States of America. Such international clearance centres are critical to processing international banking transactions and are rich with payment information. The United States has begun to apply new monitoring techniques to spot and verify suspicious transactions. The Group recommends the adoption of similar mechanisms by other countries.
The Times and a few other news outlets are just starting to catch up (check the last two grafs in this update). Comras, a former State Department official who served as the terrorism financing expert on that UN monitoring group, downplays the significance of the "secret" SWIFT tracking. "The fact is that there is really very little privacy today when it comes to the international transfer of funds. That is why criminal networks, money launderers and terrorist groups have increasingly turned to Hawalas and cash couriers for such transactions," as the US government well knows.
Thanks to Laura Rozen's War and Piece for the tip.
Update: Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing also notes the nonsecretness of Swift, the Financial Action Task Force, and the duly noted non-expectation of privacy in wire transfers, noting, "As it happens, I went to my local bank two weeks ago to wire some money to some ailing relatives in Europe, and guess what the form required? The bank's Swift ID. Some secret."