WASHINGTON – The Treasury Department agency entrusted with blocking the financial resources of terrorists told Congress that at the end of last year it had just four full-time employees dedicated to investigating Usama bin Laden's and Saddam Hussein's wealth while nearly two dozen were working on Cuban embargo violations.
In addition, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (search) said that between 1990 and 2003 it opened just 93 enforcement investigations related to terrorism and collected just $9,425 in fines for terrorism financing violations since 1994.
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 the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee to openly question whether OFAC has failed to adjust from the Cold War to the war on terrorism.
"OFAC plays a key role in the war against terrorism since it is responsible for shutting down terrorist financing activities — which has nothing to do with Americans taking bike tours through Cuba," said Sen. Max Baucus (search), D-Mont., who requested the OFAC statistics last year.
"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 and prevent another Sept. 11," Baucus said.
Sen. Charles Grassley (search), 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 Qaeda is the biggest threat to our national security. Cutting off the blood money that has financed Saddam Hussein and Usama bin Laden must be a priority when it comes to resources," Grassley said.
The Treasury Department, which oversees OFAC, said Wednesday night that 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 (search), the Office of Asset Forfeiture (search) and Office of Intelligence Support (search) — 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 disclosed it had two full-time employees investigating bin Laden's wealth and two others "dedicated to identifying individuals and entities" that may hold Saddam's leftover money.
"OFAC has no information that any foreign government is knowingly sheltering Saddam's personal wealth," the agency wrote, adding 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda.
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 to freeze on at least two occasions the money of people identified by U.S. allies as terrorist financiers.
And 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.