David S. Cohen, U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, is moving to the CIA next month to become deputy director at the spy agency.
Cohen, 51, and a graduate of Cornell University and Yale Law School, is an architect of America’s efforts to fight terrorism with balance sheets, not bullets. Since June 2011, he has led the Treasury Department’s efforts to follow the money trail of terrorists, drug traffickers and proliferators of weapons of mass destruction. He is also a member of the president’s national security team.
As Cohen explained in a speech he delivered several years ago, “If we can deter those who would donate money to violent extremist groups, disrupt the means and mechanisms through which they transmit money, and degrade their financial support networks, we can make an extraordinarily valuable contribution to our national security.”
Stuart Eizenstat, who was deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury from 1993 to 2001, worked with Cohen to monitor terrorist activity, freeze the assets of any group undermining American and world security, and institute sanctions against anyone conducting business with these organizations.
“He’s an absolutely terrific choice for this position,” Eizenstat said. Cohen did “an incredible job” and is very creative in his efforts to stymie terrorists groups and countries. His leap to the CIA shows that the intelligence agency “understands how important the financial aspects” of fighting terrorism are, Eizenstat said.
Following the money is particularly difficult because terrorist organizations like al-Qaida don’t rely on regular banks. Instead, they participate in an informal system known as hawala, the Arabic word for transfer. They “transfer cash and other funds in ways that are extremely hard to detect,” Eizenstat said.
William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of Jewish Federations of North America, called Cohen “a key national security player” who has made himself
available to the Jewish community.
“For the last five years, he’s been diligently focusing at Treasury on terrorism financial issues, and that is particularly important to our community,” Daroff said, noting the existential threat to Israel posed by Iran. Cohen, according to Daroff, strives to make sure sanctions against Iran “are in place and strong.” Daroff credited Cohen with making sure those sanctions are “written with a smart, enforceable mechanism” that has pushed Iran to the negotiating table.
Cohen also worked under Stuart Levey, the Treasury Department’s first undersecretary for terrorism and financial Intelligence from 2004 to 2011. With Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew heading that department, there is at least the appearance of a Jewish dynasty.
Eizenstat agreed there were quite a few Jewish people working both in the Treasury Department and on financial sanctions in particular. However, he said, “I don’t think it’s a Jewish slot.”
There often is a disproportionate number of Jewish public servants, both in Republican and Democratic administrations, Daroff said. Jewish people “have been committed to public service” and may even be “genetically predisposed to making the world a better place.”
When George W. Bush was president, the West Wing was nicknamed West Bank, alluding to the fact that Chief of Staff Joshua Bolton, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and “a whole string of Jewish aides where were there front and center.”