The antiquated Securities and Exchange Commission’s computer system prevents investigators from safeguarding U.S. market integrity. “It’s like working with one hand tied behind their backs,” Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley commented about the Dec. 17 release of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report he’d initiated — “SEC: Opportunities Exist to Improve Oversight of Self-Regulatory Organizations.” Why can’t the government with the world’s most advanced computer technology and capabilities equip its agencies with state-of-the-art systems allowing them to better monitor markets and transactions, including illegal activities?
In response to the GAO criticism, SEC Chairman Christopher Cox acknowledged, “additional information-technology changes such as these may help the [SEC] enforcement staff to effectively analyze trends, manage current caseloads and focus areas of investigation.” But all federal officials — not just at the SEC — should worry about much more than insider trading.
Take terror financing. So far, no U.S. official at any level, including presidential candidates from both parties, has publicly addressed how radical Muslim groups and Islamic terror organizations raise major sums to facilitate the murder of Americans in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, among other things.
Two years ago, President Bush denounced “the murderous ideology of the Islamic radicals [which] is the great challenge of our century.” But U.S. dependency on Middle East oil made the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors rich beyond their wildest dreams. Saudi funding propagates global Islamist extremism that former CIA Director James Woolsey describes as “the soil in which al Qaeda and its sister terrorist organizations are flourishing.” The September 11 commission awarded the government an A- for its “vigorous efforts against terror financing,” both in 2003, and again in its October 2005 progress report.
In fact, government efforts thus far have apparently targeted the wrong funding sources. The vast Middle East sums feeding the global spread of radical Islam and jihad have not diminished. Yet, our government tells us, the Saudis and their neighbors are U.S. allies.
Such disinformation, combined with outdated monitoring technologies and systems, contributes to continuing government failure to secure U.S. financial institutions, economic stability and national security.
Government agencies have long warned of the federal failure to properly monitor and impede funds flowing to terrorist organizations. These include several GAO reports and a May 21 IRS report criticizing government ability to identify charities favored by radical Muslims to fund terrorism.
“The IRS provides only minimal assurance that tax-exempt organizations potentially involved in terrorist activities are being identified,” it says. Furthermore, the report recommends that the IRS and other agencies “develop and implement a long-term strategy to automate the process… to identify potential terrorist activities related to tax-exempt organizations.” Another major issue slipping under the radar concerns the growing influence of petrodollars on U.S. economic institutions, banks, markets and government agencies.
Due diligence currently available identifies the routine and obvious risks associated with Western market participants. However, growing Islamic banking and Shariah-compliant industries promote themselves as hot new financial markets in which to invest. The attraction for U.S. and Western banks and investors is the $1 trillion and rising annual Saudi and Gulf state oil revenues.
Then again, like many other “innovative” products, the “ethical” and “socially responsible” Middle East and Islamic banking and investment market present many new risks not currently addressed either by their proponents or by regulatory agencies, much less due diligence services now available.
These markets and products lack transparency and Western accounting. Frequently, their documentation and offering statements do not disclose information required by federal laws and banking regulations. Furthermore, this market is increasingly governed by radical Islamic clerics whose provenance is unknown to the Federal Reserve Board, U.S. and international equities and bond ratings agencies, index providers and other insufficiently educated market participants and facilitators.
Data-mining software is available in the market today. But it lacks the ability to also analyze social and political networks and identify terrorist links. An important new program will shortly be available to fill that gap. It will also aid collection, processing, investigation, discovery, data-sharing and reporting intelligence.
The government needs this technology to stop terror financing. And businesses need objective consultants with regional expertise, language skills and access to the latest software to fully meet their “know you customer” and disclosure regulations.
Businesses that fail to take these extra precautions are liable to suffer major losses, market dislocations and possible prosecution for material support of terrorism.
Rachel Ehrenfeld is director of the American Center for Democracy. Alyssa A. Lappen is a senior fellow at the center.