Washington Prowler

What the New York Times Has Wrought

New evidence that its exposure of SWIFT tracking is helping al Qaeda and hampering U.S. efforts to penetrate terrorist networks.

By 7.7.06

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The New York Daily News' report this morning about what appears to have been an al Qaeda supported plot to blow up the Holland Tunnel in New York in order to flood the Wall Street financial district is drawing a lot of attention in the blogosphere on the heels of the New York Times' and L.A. Times' leaking of highly confidential intelligence tools that the U.S. was able to use to track terrorist financing. Why?

Because apparently al Qaeda had promised the purported lead plotter based in Lebanon financial support. Other plotters scattered around the world -- some presumably in the U.S. -- would have been in need of the funds to purchase explosives, to finance travel, etc.

We've been talking to a few folks inside DOJ, the FBI and Treasury this morning, and things are a bit unclear. But this is what we're being told.

Our Treasury source wouldn't comment on the case. One DOJ source indicated that this case initially took off from monitoring of chat rooms that had been identified as havens for some of the plotters (that monitoring was undertaken in part by the NSA, and some of the monitoring required FISA court filings, something the New York Times doesn't support, either).

BTW: another DOJ source said that in the past year, counter-terrorism officials have noted a marked downturn in the use of cell phone and landline communications. There are a number of reasons for this, but they readily point to the N.Y. Times story on NSA overseas terror-call monitoring as one reason.

Back to this latest case: The chat room activity allowed investigators to target several individuals, and at that stage, the DOJ source believes there is a good chance monitoring of certain bank account activity would have taken place. Without going into too great a detail, the source explained that U.S. investigators have identified a series of "tells" -- some enabled by SWIFT and other monitoring tools -- that help them determine when the time is ripe or necessary to move on plotters.

"People have to understand that sometimes just being able to track these guys for a few weeks not only helps with the specific case, but we pick up on new techniques the bad guys are using. This is particularly true if they don't think we're monitoring them. This case appears to be a good example of this," said our DOJ source. "The way these guys use ubiquitous technology like chat rooms, instant messaging, wireless communications, it's really startling what you pick up when you can lurk undetected. And most important, we're doing it legally and within the boundaries set by Congress and the courts."

It is not clear whether this case was one of several our sources claim they discussed in general terms with the New York Times, and which Treasury and Justice told the Times would be endangered if it went public with the SWIFT program. It appears the arrest of the plotter in Lebanon took place before the SWIFT story was leaked.

But another DOJ source added something interesting to the mix: "If you go back and look at some of our more successful anti-terrorism cases, they have focused on taking down entire networks. How do we do that? From the inside, peeling off a lead actor, turning him and using him to keep the plot moving forward so we can trace everyone else, the money, the accounts, the weapons dealers, everyone. I'll just note that we weren't able to do that with this case and leave it at that. We could have, but we weren't able to. You'll have to do the math for the Times."


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