New Counter-Terrorism Project Targets Financial Assets

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

( - The Bush administration Thursday announced the formation of a new task force to bankrupt terrorists using electronic surveillance, trade and financial data, undercover operations and other means.

"Operation Green Quest" will be a coordinated effort between federal government agencies and headed by the U.S. Customs Service to "facilitate the widest range of effective actions against terrorists and their financiers, ranging from blocking bank accounts and freezing assets to federal criminal prosecution."

The Customs Service is an agency within the U.S. Department of Treasury and has primary enforcement authority in protecting the nation's borders.

The new task force will pay closer attention to underground financial systems, illicit charities and corrupt financial institutions. It will also target counterfeiting, credit card fraud, fraudulent import/export schemes, drug trafficking and cash smuggling.

"The new war is a conflict 'without battlefields and beachheads,'" said Treasury Department Under Secretary for Enforcement Jimmy Gurule.

Operation Green Quest, said Gurule, is designed to support the Bush administration's on-going "financial war on terrorism" by seeing to it that federal agencies share information and have a coordinated approach.

The task force will be comprised of investigators already employed by Customs, the IRS, the Secret Service, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Gurule said task force planners were aware of privacy concerns that might be raised by civil libertarians regarding Operation Green Quest. "Certainly that was a concern," said Gurule. "Make no mistake about it.

The information sharing provision in the anti-terrorism legislation "recognizes or creates an exception with respect to the sharing" of financial or credit information, Gurule said. "But the exception is a limited exception with respect to terrorist investigations."

If the information being requested furthers either a domestic or international terrorist investigation, then these provisions "would authorize that information to be shared with relevant law enforcement agencies," Gurule added.

Civil libertarians from different sides of the political spectrum have objected to further government intrusion into the financial dealings of citizens.

Free Congress Foundation president Paul M. Weyrich recently sent a letter to key congressional leaders criticizing aspects of the anti-money laundering proposals before Congress.

Weyrich noted that terrorism is not a crime motivated by financial gain. Therefore, rather than clamp down on money laundering as a crime, he suggested, the United States and its allies should grant a one-time amnesty to those involved in such transactions to obtain more information.

"The information gained could be used to dismantle terrorist organizations," Weyrich wrote.

Ivan Eland, Director of Defense Policy Studies for the Cato Institute, expressed similar concerns.

"I think it's very difficult to do money laundering investigations," said Eland. "It's an elusive target. When they put all these surveillance activities, I do get nervous because most people out there aren't terrorists.

"We still have to live in an open society; otherwise terrorists have a victory," he said.

"You have to ask yourself, for the marginal improvement that you're going to get in capturing terrorists, is it worth the [loss of] civil liberties?," asked Eland.

"Using the drug war as an example," said Eland, "I don't think the gains are going to be worth much at all. Meanwhile, they're restricting people's freedom for no reason."

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