Information from U.S. companies helped Israel locate terror cells
U.S. journalist reports Shin Bet tracked down West Bank cells thanks to information from Western Union.
WASHINGTON - From the spring of 2003 until autumn 2004, the Shin Bet security service tracked down Palestinian terror cells in the West Bank thanks to information from the Western Union money transfer service, which was passed on by the FBI.
This fact was disclosed in a book published this week about America's war on terror after September 11, 2001. In "The One Percent Doctrine," author Ron Suskind connects the transfer of intelligence from the FBI to the Shin Bet with several targeted assassinations carried out by Israel during this period.
Suskind, who is considered a reliable journalist, describes how major private companies cooperated with government agencies such as the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency and the Treasury to monitor communications and financial transfers after September 11, in operations of questionable legality.
The FBI's most important connection during this period was with First Data, an Omaha-based electronic fund transfer company with a global reach. The company offered to assist the U.S. government in the war against terror.
FBI Financial Crimes Section chief Dennis Lormel and his colleagues at other intelligence agencies eventually realized that the information supplied by the company could be used not only to locate and freeze the assets of terror groups, but also to track them in real time - in other words, to follow the money trail directly to the sources and destinations of the funds.
First Data subsidiary Western Union, with branches throughout the Arab world and a high volume of money transfers, was in a perfect position to help. American intelligence agents and company officials cooperated in tracking the data trail and in monitoring security cameras installed in Western Union branches in order to see who was picking up the funds.
According to the book, then Shin Bet head Avi Dichter, whom Suskind calls an agent of change in the U.S. war against terror, was briefed by Lormel on the new monitoring capabilities during one of his frequent visits to Washington.
In April 2003, Dichter called Lormel to ask for the FBI's help in this regard. Dichter told officials that the Shin Bet had information about a courier who was expected to be bringing money to Israel from Lebanon shortly. The source of the money was known, but not the identity of the person for whom its was destined.
In early April, 2003, an Islamic Jihad activist went to a Western Union office in Lebanon and ordered a money transfer to Hebron. The Justice Department authorized Western Union to release this information to the FBI and the CIA, and eventually to the Shin Bet. According to Suskind, all this took just minutes, enabling Israeli intelligence to track the person who collected the transfer in Hebron and to uncover the terror cell.
According to the book, this method was used successfully many times over the next year and a half, until autumn 2004, when Palestinian operatives realized that their Western Union transfers were being used to trap them.
Dichter told Haaretz on Wednesday that he has never spoken with Suskind.
Intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and Israel has increased over the past several years, but until now, Israel's use of information from American companies had been kept secret.
The Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill last week aimed at further increasing intelligence ties with Israel and other countries by establishing a new office for international cooperation programs within the Department of Homeland Security.
This atmosphere of cooperation, Suskind states in his book, has reinforced the sense that President George Bush wants to assist Israel and was not disturbed by the military operations that Ariel Sharon's government authorized in the territories. Suskind quotes Bush as saying during his first National Security Council meeting that the U.S. must refrain from active mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To then secretary of state Colin Powell's argument that such behavior could be interpreted by Sharon's government as a green light to apply force, Bush responded that sometimes a show of force can clarify the issue at hand.