- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2002

The Treasury Department's agency in charge of cutting off financing to terrorists has plenty to do these days, but it also has to pay attention to what Americans are doing in Cuba.
Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill and other critics say the agency should focus instead on the ongoing war against al Qaeda and other groups suspected of plotting attacks on Americans. But its hands are tied by U.S. laws that clamp a tight trade embargo on Cuba.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), with about 126 employees, maintains the blacklist of people with whom, because they are terrorists or help finance terrorism, American citizens cannot do business. It also tracks money that people send to family members in Cuba and enforces a ban on American visits to the communist nation.
"This is the agency charged with tracking down al Qaeda money and stopping terrorism," said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, who is a forceful advocate of trading with Cuba. "But they prefer to harass travelers to Cuba."
The White House makes no apologies for U.S. policies toward Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
During a speech last month in Miami, President Bush emphasized that the United States will not loosen the embargo until Mr. Castro embraces democracy. Undersecretary of State John Bolton accused Cuba of exporting bioterrorism expertise.
No specific evidence suggests that enforcement of the Cuba embargo is undermining OFAC's effort to stop terror financing. Yet Mr. O'Neill conceded in March that OFAC's time and money would best be spent elsewhere.
In a March hearing of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Treasury and general government, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, complained that OFAC should focus on terrorists, not Cuba.
"If I had the discretion for applying the resources, I would agree with you completely," Mr. O'Neill said, adding that a change in Cuba-related laws would allow the Treasury to "get much more value for the American people."
In what was widely read as a public rebuke of Mr. O'Neill, the White House later that day issued a statement from him saying the Treasury secretary fully supports existing U.S. measures aimed at the communist nation.
U.S. laws force OFAC to deal with Cuba every day, even though the war against terrorism remains the Bush administration's top priority.
Denying money to terrorists is a huge task. For starters, OFAC has to work with intelligence agencies to identify and publish the names of people who are involved in financing terror. Then the agency works with private financial institutions and foreign governments to make sure these people cannot move or access their money.
But according to information the office provided to Mr. Flake, about 10 percent of OFAC's staff must enforce its part of the Cuba embargo, which is also the responsibility of other agencies. It maintains an office in Miami that pays particular attention to Cuba, and the OFAC Web site is constantly full of updates about the embargo.
The complexity of the Cuba embargo colors much of OFAC's work, according an individual familiar with the agency. It bans not only trade with Cubans, but also any trade with Cuba by companies organized under American laws, a rule that includes far-flung foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies.
"If there is a red Cuban passport included, the transaction is affected by U.S. law," the individual said.
OFAC has a horrendous reputation in and outside the U.S. government for inefficiency. A federal commission last year also faulted the agency for being closed and secretive, especially toward Americans it charged with wrongdoing.
"I got more complaints about OFAC than any other agency," said a former senior Clinton administration official.
Since the Bush administration took office, OFAC has sharply boosted the penalties it imposes on Americans who travel to Cuba. A typical fine runs about $7,500.
But thanks to the work of OFAC, even people who believe they qualify for exemptions to the travel ban often never make it to Havana.
Walter Armbruster, president of the Oak Brook, Ill.-based Farm Foundation, wanted to take a group of business leaders to Cuba to explore opportunities created last year when Congress allowed limited U.S. exports of food and medicine. Mr. Armbruster figured his group, which holds seminars on various agricultural issues, would get permission easily.
Instead, OFAC told him that because his group was not going to Cuba to conclude a U.S. government-approved sale, and because spouses were included in the trip, it did not qualify for the exemption. The junket has been put off indefinitely, Mr. Armbruster said.
"The present time doesn't seem very opportune," he said.
OFAC, for its part, says its hands are tied as long as Congress wants an embargo on Cuba.
"We can't pick and choose what laws we enforce," said Treasury spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos.

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