I have largely ignored the New York Times report about the Bush Administration’s tracking of international banking transactions. I have done so mainly because this is a non-story. Almost everyone with a pulse had to assume that the Government was monitoring the highly regulated world of international banking. It would be monumentally stupid to assume that financial transactions that are so tightly regulated would not be monitored. So, it came as quite a surprise when the Bush Administration started to accuse the New York Times of divulging secrets that the rest of the world already knew.
As Dan Froomkin pointed out in today’s Washington Post, the "double super secret" organization that the New York Times mentioned in its article is not so secret. SWIFT, or the Society for Worldwide InterBank Financial Telecommunication, is a very public organization that facilitates international bank-to-bank communications. According to its very public website:
SWIFT is the financial industry-owned co-operative supplying secure, standardised messaging services and interface software to 7,800 financial institutions in more than 200 countries. SWIFT’s worldwide community includes banks, broker/dealers and investment managers, as well as their market infrastructures in payments, securities, treasury and trade.
So, it is quite clear that SWIFT is not a "secret" organization. SWIFT also claims on its website that it cooperates with law enforcement, including the US Department of Treasury, to prevent illegal acts and it complies with valid subpoenas. However, tonight on Countdown with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, terrorism analyst Roger Cressey suggested that though SWIFT may have had a website, it was not widely publicized until the New York Times splashed it across its front page. So, I decided to take a look at how well-known SWIFT was before the New York Times published its article.
Since I am originally from Bangladesh, and Bangladesh is a Third World Muslim majority country, I thought a good place to start would be to find out if an ordinary Bangladeshi might be familiar with SWIFT. With that in mind, I decided to take a look at what a Bangladeshi might have to do if he or she wanted to send money back home. A reasonable place to start would be the Bangladeshi Embassy. It turns out that the Embassy offers its citizens advice on how to remit funds to Bangladesh through participating American banks. It also lists the participating banks’ SWIFT Codes to facilitate the wire transfers. For example, if you wanted to use the Bank of New York to wire money to Bangladesh you would contact the bank at:
Bank of New York
Head Office: One Wall Street, New York, NY 10286, USA
Tel:+ 1212 495 1784, Fax:+1 212 635 1799
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org SWIFT: IRVTUS3N
Clearly, a Bangladeshi national abroad will become familiar with SWIFT if he tries to wire money home.
But, what about Bangladeshis living in Bangladesh? It turns out that SWIFT is quite the marketing tool in Bangladesh. Banks regularly tout their membership in SWIFT to demonstrate their stability and international connections. For example, the Bangladesh Krishi Bank, which was founded to provide banking services to farmers in Bangladesh, proudly advertises its membership in SWIFT:
Bangladesh Krishi Bank is now a proud member of SWIFT. It is connected with modern international financial tele communication system. L/C advising/transferring and quick transfer of remittances as well as other financial correspondences have become very easy & speedy with the installation of SWIFT.
So, apparently Bangladeshi farmers are also aware of SWIFT.
Ok, so what happens if you are not a Bangladeshi farmer or living abroad. Perhaps you might read a newspaper in Bangladesh and happen to browse the business section of one of the major newspapers, The Daily Star. You might run into an article announcing:
CM Koyes Sami, managing director of The Oriental Bank Limited, has been re-elected chairperson of SWIFT member Group of Bangladesh for the term 2004-2005.
SWIFT is a worldwide community, with head quarter in Belgium, having over 7,500 financial institutions in 199 countries as its members, says a press release.
The guiding principles of SWIFT are to offer the financial services industry a common platform of advanced technology and access to shared solutions through which each member can build its competitive edge.
The organisation is engaged in supplying secure, standardised messaging services and interface software to its members.
The SWIFT community includes commercial banks, investment managers, as well as other market infrastructures requiring payments, and transferring securities, treasury and trade.
The fact of the matter is that SWIFT is ubiquitous in the Third World and known to anyone who attempts to transfer money overseas. If you want to do business with a Bangladeshi company and would like to transfer funds, you must know the company’s bank account number and the bank’s corresponding SWIFT Code. Here is a tariff card of a Bangladeshi company. Feel free to send some money to them.
In case you might be under the impression that Bangladesh might be an exception, here is a link to Nepal’s tourism website that announces that major banks in Nepal use the SWIFT system to transfer money abroad. My guess is that since most of the Third World seems to know about SWIFT, I would not be going out on a limb if I posited that al Queda also knows about SWIFT.
So, is Tony Snow that stupid? After all, when asked about how national security was compromised by the New York Times he said this at the White House briefing: "I am absolutely sure they didn’t know about SWIFT." Someone should tell Mr. Snow that most of the underdeveloped world knew about SWIFT well before the New York Times published its article. It appears the only people who thought this was a secret were the Bush Administration. The question then becomes: Is the Bush Administration’s intelligence that bad or do they think we are idiots?