Does a 'Bad Actors' List Go Too Far?
The financial tool is powerful, but some fear its widening use
Muhammad Salah has an unusual problem for a suburban Chicago father of five. His assets are frozen, and it is technically illegal for him to purchase so much as a Slurpee at 7-Eleven. For the past nine years, Salah, a U.S. citizen, has been on a list of designated terrorists issued by the U.S. Treasury Department. Accused of fundraising for the terrorist wing of the Palestinian group Hamas, Salah has to apply for a license to get a job or even to pay a doctor. "He lives primarily from the charity of his community," says his lawyer, Matthew Piers. "You could argue that even that charity is in violation of the restrictions."
Salah's designation was based largely on a confession made in Israeli military custody after what his lawyer says were rough interrogations. He denies intentionally funding terrorism, but even after a U.S. criminal trial absolved him of terrorism-related charges (convicting him only of obstruction of justice for lying in a civil suit), he remains sanctioned. "He has attempted to live a normal American life," says Piers, noting that two of Salah's children won full college scholarships. "But it has been an incredibly harsh burden." So far, Salah is the only U.S. citizen on the terrorist list, but several U.S.-based Islamic charities, which are also fighting the designation, are listed.
This growing lineup of "specially designated nationals" results in part from the White House's enthusiastic embrace of targeted economic sanctions to battle an expanding set of targets. Although the use of executive orders to freeze enemy assets dates back to the 1970s, President Bush has issued more such orders than any of his predecessors—going after everything from proliferators of weapons of mass destruction to the government of Zimbabwe to figures behind the conflict in Darfur. The orders once were targeted largely at rogue regimes, but President Clinton aimed them at individuals, starting with Colombian drug traffickers.
Bush carried on the practice because it has proved powerful at times. But there are growing concerns that he might be enlarging the target set too far, particularly after his two latest orders. One authorizes freezing the assets of those "who threaten stabilization efforts in Iraq" through violence. Another covers anyone "undermining the sovereignty of Lebanon." Because earlier orders already encompassed terrorists, proliferators, members of Saddam Hussein's regime, and certain Iranians and Syrians, the new orders raise questions about just who is being targeted now. "It fits into this administration's pattern of making very broad claims to executive power," says Phillip Cooper, a professor of public administration at Portland State University. "The language here is so broad it is difficult to understand the full scope of it."
Freeze-out. Today, the list of "specially designated nationals," issued by Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, contains more than 6,000 individuals and institutions prohibited from doing business with U.S. persons. Of those, some 475 names come under an order Bush issued after the 9/11 attacks targeting terrorists. Because most of the 475 are foreigners without U.S. bank accounts, less than $14 million had been frozen by late 2005. But the true punitive effect, officials say, is global: "Not only governments around the world but private actors around the world want nothing to do with [these] people," says OFAC Director Adam Szubin.