Friday 30 April 2004
Washington (AP) -- The Treasury Department agency entrusted with blocking the financial resources of terrorists has assigned five times as many agents to investigate Cuban embargo violations as it has to track Osama bin Laden's and Saddam Hussein's money, documents show.
In addition, the Office of Foreign Assets Control said that between 1990 and 2003 it opened just 93 enforcement investigations related to terrorism. Since 1994 it has collected just $9,425 in fines for terrorism financing violations.
In contrast, OFAC opened 10,683 enforcement investigations since 1990 for possible violations of the long-standing economic embargo against Fidel Castro's regime, and collected more than $8 million in fines since 1994, mostly from people who sent money to, did business with or traveled to Cuba without permission.
The figures, included in a lengthy letter OFAC sent to Congress late last year and provided to The Associated Press this week, prompted Republicans and Democrats alike to question whether OFAC has failed to adjust from the Cold War to the war on terrorism.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., threatened Thursday to start an effort in Congress to eliminate some funding for OFAC if more resources weren't put toward the bin Laden and Saddam efforts.
"This is really astounding,'' Dorgan said. "I hope somebody in the administration will soon come to his or her senses and start directing our resources where they are needed. Politics is clearly diverting precious time, money and manpower away from the war on terrorism here.''
Sen. Max Baucus, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, requested the figures, which showed that at the end of 2003, OFAC had 21 full-time agents working Cuba violations and just four full-time workers hunting bin Laden's and Saddam's riches.
"Rather than spending precious resources to prevent Americans from exercising their right to travel, OFAC must realign its priorities and instead work harder to keep very real terrorist threats out of our country,'' said Baucus, D-Mont.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the tax-writing Senate panel, agreed.
"OFAC obviously needs to enforce the law with regard to U.S. policy on Cuba, but the United States is at war against terrorism, and al-Qaida is the biggest threat to our national security,'' Grassley said. "Cutting off the blood money that has financed Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden must be a priority when it comes to resources.''
The Treasury Department, which oversees OFAC, said its workers "fully utilize the resources and tools available to us to protect our nation and the good-willing people around the world from those who seek to harm us, be they terrorist thugs or fascist dictators.''
In a statement, Treasury said the Bush administration was "steadfast in fighting the financial war on terror and honoring our commitment to the United States and the United Nations to uphold our economic sanctions against rogue nations.''
But the department last month signaled it wasn't completely satisfied with its terror-fighting effort, announcing a reorganization that placed four historically autonomous offices -- OFAC, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the Office of Asset Forfeiture and the Office of Intelligence Support -- under the control of a new undersecretary for the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.
Treasury Secretary John Snow wrote Grassley that the initiative will, by 2005, double the resources OFAC had just four years ago if President Bush's budget is approved. Still, Snow acknowledged change was needed.
"In a post-Sept. 11 world it was crucial that we took a good, hard look at the capabilities we had available as well as question what changes needed to be made in light of that attack,'' Snow wrote.
In its letter late last year to the Senate committee, OFAC said it "has no information that any foreign government is knowingly sheltering Saddam's personal wealth.'' The agency added that the deposed Iraqi dictator "almost certainly used front companies and trusted associates outside Iraq to hold and manage assets.''
As for bin Laden, OFAC wrote that its dealings with Saudi officials and bin Laden's family since 1999 have led it to conclude that the al-Qaida leader did not have a fortune of $300 million or more, as some media reports have suggested.
"He may have had some wealth, but not in this range,'' OFAC wrote. Instead, OFAC said bin Laden used his status as a "trusted person'' from a wealthy Saudi family to collect and distribute charitable funds in the name of radical Islam, essentially underwriting a recruiting and training network that became al-Qaida.
OFAC is charged with freezing the bank accounts and other financial assets of countries, companies and individuals who are U.S. enemies. Though obscure to most Americans, the office has encountered significant controversy.
Last Christmas, Grassley and Baucus accused the agency of failing on at least two occasions to freeze the money of people identified by U.S. allies as terrorist financiers.
Richard Newcomb, the career official who has run OFAC for years under both Republican and Democratic presidents, was the subject of an internal investigation in the mid-1990s that concluded he improperly met outside the office with representatives of companies under investigation by his agency and took uncoordinated enforcement actions that potentially compromised criminal investigations.