David Cohen Becomes the CIA’s ‘Financial Batman’


Washington — In a reflection of the increasing role the U.S. Department of the Treasury is playing in clandestine operations, America’s “sanctions guru” was sworn in on February 9 as the country’s second-in-command spymaster.

David Cohen, whose appointment as deputy director of the CIA was announced in January, will be the highest-ranking Jew now in the spy agency’s hierarchy — but not the first to reach its upper heights. In 1995, President Clinton appointed John Deutch, a scientist and Energy Department official, to head the agency. Deutch served in this position less than two years.

As undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, the position Cohen held until his CIA appointment, Cohen stood at the forefront of the battle to dry up the financial resources of ISIS. Experts see his new job as a mark of the importance that financial tracking has assumed in America’s national security infrastructure.

“It reinforces the idea that Treasury, which has become a more intimate part of the intelligence, is conversant and relevant in all issues, from Iran and North Korea to Al Qaeda and ISIS,” said Juan Zarate, a Treasury and White House official during the second Bush administration who had focused on financial intelligence.

Colleagues in the Obama administration referred to Cohen as the “financial Batman,” who, armed with balance sheets and transaction ledgers, was out to get the bad guys. This description may overstate the excitement involved in closing financial taps that allowed rogue players on the international scene to thrive, but it also catches the important role played by Cohen and his team in modern intelligence warfare.

The idea of setting up an office within the Treasury Department to deal with counterterrorism was conceived shortly after the September 11 terror attacks. The operation has since grown into a massive division, with 700 employees charged with tracking terror financing and enforcing sanctions.

Cohen served as head of the office since 2011, and in the past year he has focused much of its work on battling the growing threat of ISIS. The role played by Cohen on this front is viewed as complementary to that of the troops fighting the war on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Cohen and his office have been tracking down the Islamic State’s financial resources, which include significant oil revenues as well as millions of dollars paid as ransom from countries seeking to free hostages held by the terrorists. The effort led by the Treasury is aimed at cracking down on the group’s oil sales and shutting down its means of..
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