U.S. agents follow the WMD money trail

David S. Cohen, right, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence in the Treasury Department, speaks with John Sullivan, left, spokesperson for the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. (WTOP/J.J. Green)

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Every country has a finance ministry, but only the U.S. has one with a unit dedicated to combating illicit finance linked to terrorists and rogue nation-states developing or threatening to use weapons of mass destruction.

The goal of the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence is to choke off the money supply for such targets until their exploits shrivel up and cease.

Right now, Iran is the unit’s main focus.

U.S. and European sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports and banking system because of its nuclear program have placed a stranglehold on Iran’s economy. The value of the national currency, the rial, has tumbled 40 percent since September and inflation may be close to 40 percent.

“Iran is under more extreme pressure I think than any country has ever felt,” says David Cohen, the Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. His far-reaching team of agents is largely responsible for Iran’s misery.

“I have people on my team who are intelligence analysts, who use financial intelligence, to help map the networks that we’re trying to disrupt,” says Cohen.

But Iran is only a part of their workflow.

“We are very much engaged in an effort to apply pressure to the Assad regime in Syria, as part of the broad effort to bring about a change in the political leadership in Syria,” says Cohen.

Another key task is chasing money trails of the world’s most notorious terror organizations.

“That means al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas, the al-Qaida affiliates that have sprung up in Yemen and North Africa,” he says.

Drug traffickers are on their to-do list as well. On any given day, they’re active in the financial jungles of Central and South America, attempting “to disrupt the financial networks of major narcotics traffickers,” says Cohen.

The Treasury team includes the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes (TFFC), the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (OIA) and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). They act as international financial arm-twisters, with a broad mandate to harass America’s enemies and an even broader team to do it.

“We are very much tied into the whole interagency efforts that combat terrorism. And it is an effort that involves everyone from folks at the State Department, folks at DHS (Department of Homeland Security), folks in the military, folks in the White House. It is really truly a whole of government effort to combat terrorism,” says Cohen.

Unfortunately for Iran, which has been reluctant to heed international demands to shut down its nuclear weapons program, the pressure won’t end anytime soon.

“We will do that so long as it’s necessary to create the incentive for Iran to come to the table to negotiate in a meaningful way,” Cohen says.

To that end, the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence appears to somehow learn about many sinister acts that perpetrators think are cloistered in secrecy. Sometime during the summer of 2012, assets – whom Cohen would not identify – spotted some unusual activity going on at the Damascus airport in Syria.

“Mahan Air, which is one of the major airlines in Iran,” says Cohen, “uses passenger flights to also transport material for the IRGC Quds Force, the organization that is responsible for supporting terrorist activity outside of Iran. And so they use the cover of civilian flights to transport men and material that are dedicated to terrorist activity.”

As a result, 117 airplanes from Iran’s Mahan and Yas airlines have been sanctioned, essentially making it illegal for them to fly outside of Iran.

U.S. sanctions against Iran go back decades. After the 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran, the United States froze almost $12 billion in Iranian assets, including bank deposits, gold and other properties.

Every U.S. president since the Carter administration, except for President George H.W. Bush, has hit Iran with some new level of sanctions.

Interestingly, under existing U.S. sanctions, only a relatively small amount of money belonging to the Iranian government – $55 million – has been frozen as a result of sanctions related to their nuclear weapons program.

However, almost all of Iran’s economic sector – from banks, airlines, oil companies and people – are feeling the heat.

Some experts say Iran may be close to the breaking point. Until then, Cohen says, his team “will continue to ratchet up the pressure.”

“And we have the tools at hand to continue to do that,” he says.

But for every tool U.S. agents come up with, those they’re chasing develop evasive tools of their own. That, says Cohen, is “one of the things that we are constantly focused on – going after people who are trying to evade sanctions that we put in place.”

“It is just a challenge to stay on top of the variety of threats, the variety of national security challenges and foreign policy challenges that we’re looking at,” he acknowledges.

More about the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence can be found here.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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