Bush administration officials have been lining up to condemn The New York Times for revealing a program to track financial transactions as part of the war on terrorism. But if the Times’ revelation about a program to monitor international exchanges is so damaging, why has the administration been chattering about efforts to monitor domestic transactions for nearly five years?
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, many journalists — including this one — were briefed by U.S. Customs officials on Operation Green Quest, an effort to roll up terrorist financiers by monitoring, among other things, "suspicious" bank transfers and ancient money lending programs favored by people of Middle Eastern descent.
I interviewed Marcy Forman, director of Green Quest, at her Washington offices in December 2001, when I was a writer for Government Executive magazine. Our meeting was sanctioned by Customs' public affairs office, and came at a time when the White House was eager to talk about all the work federal agencies were doing to hunt down terrorists. Forman told me the kinds of people, transactions, even locations that the government was targeting. (These are details, it should be noted, that the recent Times piece did not reveal.) Among the potentially sensitive items Forman told me, which were published:“Operation Green Quest is focusing on the informal, largely paperless form of money exchange known as hawala, which is Arabic for ‘to change.’”
“Few undercover agents can penetrate Middle Eastern communities and money laundering rings because they look like outsiders and don't speak the language…. As a result, Green Quest has to be more clever, by setting traps on the Internet and working to flush currency traffickers out of their hiding places.”
“Treasury and FBI investigators have identified hawala as a means by which the alleged Sept. 11 terrorists may have received money from overseas.”
“Green Quest investigators, who've spent their careers dismantling money laundering rackets, were blindsided by the existence of the system. ‘Most of us couldn't spell hawala’ before Sept. 11,’ Forman said.”
“The agencies' [involved in Green Quest] cooperative efforts have recently culminated in raids of alleged money laundering operations that aid suspected terrorist networks.”
“Green Quest also wants to lower the threshold at which bank deposits and electronic funds transfers must be documented. Dropping the ceiling from $10,000 to $750, Forman said, may force money traffickers to try to get their cash out of the country by hand. They would then be subject to capture by a beefed-up cadre of Customs Service officers at border crossings, airports and seaports.”
Indeed. Why are they going after the NY Times? To throw red meat.