Several readers concentrated not just on the undesirability of government snooping on money transfers in the first place, but on the unintended but likely side-effects of heavy-handed government oversight of conventional money-transfer methods; as the AP article explained, there are ways to route around large-scale commercial services like Western Union, including informal networks called "hundis" or "hawalas." Reader quantaman calls increased control on conventional money-transfer services "worse than useless," writing:
"From what I can gather from the article this policy is actually harming security.
... If law abiding people are avoiding official institutions what makes them think that terrorists are stupid enough to use them?
More than that, by driving additional people to the hawalas it circumvents existing security measures. For starters, it means that more money (even the legit stuff) is moving around and they have no idea where it went. Also the additional people using the hawalas will mean they are more developed for the terrorists [to] use them. Additionally, when you uncover a hawala network it will be that much harder to pick out the terrorists, since you've added all these false positives. And finally, for the terrorists who would have used official institutions in the past since it was easy and the hawalas weren't developed, now you no longer have a money trail you can inspect later on.
All this security measure does is inconvenience and alientate a whole bunch of people while making the world a little less safe."
No matter how legitimate the ends to which it will be put, high-handed interference with the transfer of money isn't popular for other reasons, too. Reader ColourlessGreenIdeas writes "I know of a charity that works with (mostly Christian) organisations in the West Bank. Their usual way of getting money to their partners is to fly into Israel with a big bundle of money. Otherwise it tends to get massively delayed by U.S. banks."
(And at least one reader points out reason to suspect that Western Union in particular might have been willing to turn over information on its customers even in the absence of Treasury regulations.)
The Treasury regulations on which the name-filtering is based are clearly imperfect, but not quite as simplistic as certain comments painted them. Responding to the claim in the AP article that "Western Union prevented [taxi driver Abdul Rahman Maruthayil] from sending $120 to a friend at home last month because the recipient's name was Mohammed," reader lecithin says "Not true. They prevented him from sending the cash because his name was Sahir Mohammed. A bit of a difference. Perhaps a Sahir Mohammed has some links to 'bad guys'? Well, it happens here in the U.S. too. There are plenty of stories regarding people being put on the 'do not fly' list due to circumstances like this as well."
Reader bwcarty, too, calls "FUD" on claims that the list is indiscriminant or exclusively targets those with Arab names, writing "I work for a division of a large financial firm, and we are required to download a list of Specially Designated Nationals from the Treasury Department and compare names from it against new accounts and transfers. The list includes lists of suspected terrorists, and they're not all Arabic (think Irish Republican Army)."Reader rhsanborn offers a similar account of the regulations and why they affect one-time transfers so significantly:
"... They aren't blocking people because they have some generic Arab name. They are blocking people who have names that match the Federal list of suspected terrorists. As someone mentioned above, something like Sahir Mohammed. Probably a perfect match for the list.
We too have to run periodic checks against the names in that database. If a match comes up, we have people individually check other information to confirm that it is an actual match (e.g. same name, different birthday).
We have open accounts with these people though, so we have a significant amount of time to deal with these. Western Union has a very short period of time because it is a one time transaction that happens relatively quickly."
Several readers related personal experience with the no-fly list, and a few pointed out some of its better-known shortcomings, such as a Soundex-based name database which has the potential to needlessly flag passengers like Senator Ted Kennedy and the former Sex Pistol Johnny Lydon (though as dan828 points out, Lydon has never actually been stopped because of the list).
Many readers denounced as racist the use of common Arab names to justify interference in money transfers. One response to that claim comes from reader mrxak, who offers a more innocuous explanation, namely imperfect information and a limited pool of names, which will inevitably contain variations of commonly used names. Such a system, he argues, is therefore based on pragmatism — not necessarily racism." Arguing that a similar system would pose just as much risk for "John Smiths" on the list as for those with Arab names, mrxak concedes the need for "a better system," and asks "but what kind of system would work?"
To this, reader eln had a ready answer: "Maybe a system where you gather a little more information about suspected terrorists other than their name before throwing them on some sort of list that prevents anyone with that name from doing all sorts of normal tasks. ... [O]f all of the pieces of information that can be used to identify a person, his name is probably the one that's most easily falsified. So, instead of doing some actual police work and gathering some actual evidence against an actual person, we decide to cast a wide net, and end up catching a lot of innocent people while actually decreasing our chances of catching the actual bad guy."
Jah-Wren Ryel's answer to the same question is more radical -- Ryel suggests that perhaps "none at all" is the best approach. He asks "What makes you think that any system could work?" Rather than spending money on elaborate surveillance or other intelligence-gathering efforts, Ryel says, "spend it on emergency services instead. ... No matter how many tax dollars you throw at the problem, terrorism is a tactic that can not be fully countered." Rather than concentrating on the prevention of terrorist acts, he argues, the most intelligent use of resources is on "the infrastructure that minimizes the damage. Better hospitals, better fire departments, better 'first responder' teams. That way, we get the benefit of the money spent regardless of if a terrorist blows up a building or an earthquake knocks it down."
The Israeli response to recurring attacks illustrates that these approaches may be in large part reconcilable; infrastructure improvements and intelligence gathering can certainly coexist, details of their implementation aside. The effectiveness of the pre-emptive side of any nation's approach to minimizing terrorist attacks, though, is slightly different from its approach to "fighting terror" in a broad sense.
On that note, reader karlandtanya describes measures such as the U.S. policies subjecting what might otherwise be private financial transactions to automated scrutiny as "effective, but still unfair," categorizing the use of name-based interference as what Bruce Schneier has described as "security theater." Karlandtanya writes, cynically, that in reaction to perceived security threats, "we present the appearance of security measures. Going overboard and causing outrage is just part of the salesmanship." To combat terror in a literal sense, he writes, "[t]he solution is, of course, the perception of security."
Thanks to all the readers whose comments informed the conversation, in particular to those whose comments are quoted above.