WASHINGTON -- An unheralded Belgian company that handles much of the world's financial message traffic is suddenly getting a lot of attention.
Known by its acronym, Swift, the financial-industry owned cooperative has for nearly five years been making its immense international data base available to help the Bush administration track down terrorists.
The group has complied with administration subpoenas to supply financial data in a program that was secret until it was revealed Thursday by several news organizations over the objections of the administration.
Democrats and civil liberties groups said Friday that the whole effort had disturbing similarities to another controversial anti-terrorism program of warrantless spying on telephone calls and e-mails.
But the administration defended the program, which has been going since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and denounced the news media for making it public.
Treasury Secretary John Snow called the financial-records effort "government at its best" and said it was "entirely consistent with our democratic values, with our best legal traditions."
The program allows U.S. counterterrorism analysts to obtain financial information from a vast database maintained by Swift, which is headquartered in Brussels. It routes about 11 million financial transactions daily among 7,800 banks and other financial institutions in 200 countries.
"By following the money, we've been able to locate operatives, we've been able to locate their financiers, we've been able to chart the terrorist networks and we've been able to bring the terrorists to justice," Snow said. "If people are sending money to help al-Qaida, we want to know about it."
The existence of the program was first reported Thursday night on the Web sites of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. The administration had argued for the media to withhold details.
Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking at a political luncheon in Chicago, denounced the decision to reveal the existence of the financial monitoring program and the earlier-disclosed National Security Agency surveillance program.
"What I find most disturbing about these stories is that some of the news media take it upon themselves to disclose vital national security programs, thereby making it more difficult for us to prevent future attacks against the American people," Cheney said. "That offends me."
The news organizations defended their decision. Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles Times, said the government's arguments were considered carefully but in the end the newspaper felt it was "in the public interest to publish information about the extraordinary reach of this program."
Snow said that "very significant protocols and safeguards" had been put in place to protect Americans' privacy. Officials said that for the most part, Americans would not come under the scrutiny of the program unless they were transferring or receiving money from abroad.
Snow declined to give specific examples of where the program had been successful in shutting off terrorist financing but said that he had assured himself that it was working.
In a statement, Swift, which stands for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, said it had negotiated with the U.S. Treasury Department "over the scope and oversight of the subpoenas."
Democrats in Congress and civil liberties groups were critical of the administration's actions while Republicans voiced support.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., co-chairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, said there were disturbing similarities between the financial data tracking and the telephone and e-mail surveillance.
He said the administration appeared to be relying "on justifications concocted without regard to current law."
Rep. Barney Frank, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, said he was concerned that the government was acting "without real safeguards to protect people's privacy."
Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union called the program a "frightening invasion of civil liberties." He said the most troubling aspect was the potential that the CIA and other agencies with access to information from both programs could use leads turned up by taping into telephone conversations to mine bank records.
Edward Yingling of the American Bankers Association said banks were working to strike the right balance between "protecting customer privacy and stopping terrorist financing." Some officials of foreign banks were less supportive.
"We had no idea this was going on at all," said James Nason with the Swiss Bankers Association.
Republicans defended the financial program, saying that it made sense in trying to track down terrorists.
"I think that the tracking of the financing of terrorism trumps most things," said Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
Select members of Congress received briefings after the program began in 2001. The full House and Senate Intelligence Committees were briefed about the program last month.
Stuart Levey, Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said that there were "at least tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands" of financial transactions that had been scrutinized.
For the Swift transaction data to be reviewed, investigators have to produce the name of someone they suspect of terrorist links, a requirement that officials said keeps the government from launching fishing expeditions into the vast data pool.
The consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton was retained to audit and review the U.S. activities in the program, Levey said.
"They have found consistently the government is not abusing this data," he said.
On the Net:
Treasury Department: www.treas.gov
Swift organization: www.swift.com
Associated Press writers Marcy Gordon, Deb Riechmann and Mary Dalrymple contributed to this report.