MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Not long after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government began to secretly comb through international banking transactions hoping to find terror suspects. That program focuses on a database known as SWIFT. It's a clearing house for virtually every international banking transaction. It's based in Belgium.
To help us understand just what SWIFT is and what it does, we're joined by Rowan Bosworth Davies. He's a financial crime consultant at a company called Control Risks Group in London.
And welcome to the program.
Mr. ROWAN BOSWORTH DAVIES (Financial Crime Consultant): Thank you.
BRAND: Tell us, what is SWIFT?
Mr. DAVIES: SWIFT is an international means of transmitting financial information about financial transactions between banks and financial institutions around the world. It's nothing more than a gateway to passing information from one institution to another.
BRAND: And what kind of information does it have?
Mr. DAVIES: It has information about financial transactions. So if I wanted to send money from my bank in London to your bank in - I guess you're in Los Angeles, I think, aren't you? I would just ask my bank to send specific sum of money to your bank and as long as I had the coordinates of your bank, they would send the message from my bank, which would go to my correspondent bank in New York and my correspondent bank in New York would connect to your correspondent bank in New York. And they in turn would then pass that message on to your bank wherever you happened to be.
BRAND: And does it give any information, any identifying information as to who is sending this? And where the person is?
Mr. DAVIES: Yes, the amount of information that is in the message depends entirely on the person making the remittance. The SWIFT requirements are quite detailed. They like to have as much information as possible about the person making the remittance, and - well, in the sense of obviously name the account from which it's coming, the account to which it's going, and the amount of money that's being transferred and the currency that it's being transferred in.
Now, what does happen sometimes is that you don't always have to fill up every single field in the form because as long as you have the basic information in the instructions form then the transaction will still go through.
BRAND: And so could SWIFT be a pretty effective tool in trying to uncover terrorist financing?
Mr. DAVIES: Well, it's a very difficult question. Insofar as any investigation looking for terrorist financing is concerned, it's going to be an effective use of investigator's time. One of the things I think we have to recognize is that, you know, terrorists, generally speaking, are very efficient organizations and they generally tend not to use names and identifiable features which would necessarily automatically track back to a government agency. So what you - you would still need to be able to have knowledge of the names or the aliases under which these people were operating in order to be able to identify any transactions that are taking place.
BRAND: And as the Los Angeles Times noted today, al-Qaida is using a less formal means of transferring money, not even going through the SWIFT program.
Mr. DAVIES: There are many forms of transmitting money which don't have to use the SWIFT system. SWIFT is a legitimate and genuine source of investigation for any investigator and certainly would be something which I would be shocked and horrified if I discovered that the U.S. government had not used that avenue of investigation. But I don't believe it will necessarily give them all the answers they're looking for.
BRAND: Thank you very much.
Mr. DAVIES: It's a pleasure.
BRAND: Rowan Bosworth Davies is a financial crime consultant in London.
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