Obama Stays The Course On Terrorist Financing Though President Obama has changed many of the national security policies enacted by the Bush administration, he has indicated that he plans to stay the course on efforts to track terrorists' money.
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Obama Stays The Course On Terrorist Financing

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Obama Stays The Course On Terrorist Financing

Obama Stays The Course On Terrorist Financing

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. President Obama is making dramatic changes to many of the country's national security policies. Here's one area where he has not changed direction: tracking terrorists' money, which seems in principle like an obvious good idea. Though today lawmakers will try to track the trackers. There is some question about what really works. Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: In 2007, al-Qaida released a video interview with one of its leaders in Afghanistan. The interviewer asks, what are the needs of the jihad in Afghanistan? Sheik Saeed answers the first need is financial. This recording comes from the Middle East Media Research Institute.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. SHEIK SAEED: (Through translator) There are hundreds wishing to carry out martyrdom-seeking operations, but they can't find the funds to equip themselves. So funding is the mainstay of jihad.

SHAPIRO: To people who fight terrorist financing, this video is proof of success. Matthew Levitt used to work on terrorism financing at the Treasury Department.

Mr. MATTHEW LEVITT (Washington Institute): If terrorists need money to do something, even if they only need a little bit of money but they can't get that money where and when they need it, you can have an extremely disruptive effect on their efforts to carry out attacks or do other things.

SHAPIRO: Broadly speaking, there are two ways the U.S. goes after terrorist financing. They can start with a known bad guy and follow the money trail or they can sift through millions of financial transactions looking for something suspicious. The first model is not very controversial at all. In fact, many people are excited about a recent program that gives soldiers tools to follow terrorists' money. Andrew Cochran founded the Counterterrorism Blog.

Mr. ANDREW COCHRAN (Counterterrorism Blog): Soldiers in Afghanistan have been supplied with card readers. Okay? That wouldn't have happened five, six years ago.

SHAPIRO: A soldier can scan a credit card found at the scene of a military raid and it might tell him who's in a terrorist financial network or how much money is in the account.

Mr. COCHRAN: When you think back to American wars, military action in the past, from Desert Storm on back through Vietnam, Korea, World War II, we didn't do that kind of thing. There wasn't that kind of effort to determine the financing of, let's say, Viet Cong guerrillas and how it traces back.

SHAPIRO: So that's one model of tracking terrorists' money. The other model starts with financial institutions like banks. They give the FBI information about suspicious-looking transactions and the FBI decides whether to follow up. Government officials defends this program, but not everyone is convinced it works.

Mr. MIKE GERMAN (American Civil Liberties Union): Show me the evidence. Don't tell me an anecdotal story. You know, even a blind squirrel finds nuts sometimes.

SHAPIRO: Mike German spent 16 years at the FBI and now he's with the ACLU.

Mr. GERMAN: If you look at the data, what you see is this enormous increase in surveillance with a really startling drop-off in prosecutions.

SHAPIRO: Even people who support financial surveillance say it's hard to prove that the program is effective by looking at public data. Former Treasury official Matthew Levitt just wrote a study of terrorist financing called "The Money Trail"

Mr. LEVITT: I admit I've been out of government two years now. I've been trying to come up with useful metrics to measure this and I've failed miserably. So where we still are left with today - and it is insufficient - is the periodic declassified anecdotes.

SHAPIRO: For example, the U.S. says it caught the mastermind of the attacks on Bali by tracing money. The British say they thwarted a bomb plot at Heathrow by tracking finances. Dennis Lormel(ph) created the FBI's terrorist financing operation section after 9/11.

Mr. DENNIS LORMEL (FBI): It's one of the areas that is a rub that the government needs to do a better job in providing feedback mechanisms that demonstrates the value of that information.

SHAPIRO: After 9/11, banks spent a fortune to comply with laws like the USA Patriot Act. They hired outside consultants to make sure they reported every suspicious transaction. Since the economy went bad, banks have been laying those people off. Now Lormel is worried that terrorists will use that opportunity.

Mr. LORMEL: You can rest assured that they're looking to adapt and be able to exploit new vulnerabilities. And unfortunately those new vulnerabilities are going to be out there.

SHAPIRO: While the banks may be undergoing a major change in this area, the government is not. Stuart Levey was the Treasury Department's chief terrorism financing official under President Bush. In January, President Obama asked him to stay on.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Watch an excerpt of that interview with Sheik Saeed at npr.org.

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