Treasury: We don’t expect full legal compliance

January 22, 2012

When the last banks in Minnesota stopped processing money transfers to Somalia in an effort to prevent funding of terrorism, the Minnesota politicians like Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Keith Ellison criticized the banks.

That was bad enough, but Tim Geithner’s Treasury Department (specifically, David Cohen’s Terrorism and Financial Intelligence office [TFI]) has made an even broader statement than Franken in a mostly unnoticed Treasury blog post in late-December.

In a very craftily written post, TFI policy advisor Scott Rembrandt wrote, “The Treasury Department expects financial institutions, in their compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act, to reasonably discharge their due diligence obligations — not that they be infallible in doing so.”

What Mr. Rembrandt is saying is that Treasury expects banks to do a decent job of enforcing BSA provisions, and not to implement its provisions too strictly.

It is not too far to extrapolate that the suggestion here is that banks should not adhere strictly to counterterror finance laws if such adherence could limit Somali-Americans’ ability to transfer money as they please, and that Treasury would not seek legal action or fines against banks that loosen compliance standards on international money transfers.  This position taken by TFI is troubling on several levels.

Let’s leave aside the possibility that the Muslims in Minnesota would intentionally fund terrorism (even though Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan were recently convicted of doing exactly that).

Let’s also leave aside the possibility that Muslim Somali-Americans are not trying to fund terrorism, but the relatives that they are sending money to could support al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The fact remains that many of the Muslim-Americans’ relatives in Somalia live in territory subject to forced taxation by al-Shabaab.  Al-Shabaab receives its revenues by the aggressive, coercive theft through Islamic taxes on ordinary Somali commerce along trade routes and harbors.  Whether local Somalis want it or not, and whether Muslim-Americans like it or not, the money that is remitted to Somalia stands an unacceptable risk of being given to or stolen by Al-Shaabab.

Any plain reading of the Bank Secrecy Act, the Patriot Act, and other modern know-your-customer provisions would convince even the most hard-nosed, profit-driven bank president that it simply is not legally (never mind morally or financially) acceptable to facilitate such money transfers.

Granted, modern anti-money laundering laws are onerous and often ineffective.  But for the Treasury Department to make a public statement that banks are not expected to be “infallible” on carrying out the laws which have been imposed by Congress on the financial sector is absurd.

Suppose that one of the banks in question are taken to court someday by family members of somebody who has been murdered by Al-Shabaab.  Will the victims and the judge be comforted when the bank’s lawyers quote Treasury’s blog by saying, “Your honor, Treasury told us we don’t have to be infallible”?

One comment

  1. […] on earth would anybody still criticize banks in Minnesota for ceasing to providing money transfer services to Somalia?  The evidence has […]

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