Lew: Treasury fighting on new financial battlefield

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said his team is fighting on a “new battlefield,” attacking foes via their financial networks.

In remarks Monday, Lew said the Treasury unit devoted to combating terrorism and other bad actors via financial battle is providing a key new tool to the administration. And he said the administration is ready and willing to use that power when necessary, before putting troops in harm’s way.

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“It is an altogether new approach, targeting the financing—the cash—in order to block the funds of illicit actors and impact the political calculus of state actors,” he said at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Lew said that Treasury’s efforts are “fundamental” to tackling challenges abroad, at a time when technology has made economies closely interconnected and small groups of extremists can do significant damage.

In the lead up to the Sept. 11 attacks, Lew said that wealthy financiers of al Qaeda were able to effectively operate in the open, before the government established a financial team to fight back.

“That is no longer possible today,” Lew said.

He added that in the last year, the Treasury has designated 87 individuals and entities under its terrorism sanctions program, freezing them out of the U.S. financial system. The department has also imposed sanctions on over 1,500 foreign drug traffickers and those tied to the drug trade under the Kingpin Act, a 1999 law that also locks illicit drug dealers from the U.S. financial system.

But beyond targeting small groups of terrorists and cartels, Lew said Treasury’s financial fight is also a critical piece of broader efforts against other nations. The Treasury has implemented extensive economic sanctions against Iran, which Lew credited with pushing the nation to the negotiating table for the first time in a decade regarding its nuclear ambitions. He acknowledged that it is not clear if those talks will prove fruitful, but there at least now is a chance to resolve the standoff peacefully.

Lew also said Treasury was playing a critical role in the fight over Ukraine, working to support the nation during its governmental overhaul while punishing Russia for its efforts to gain ground and influence there.

Lew said the Treasury, along with other international bodies, have put “enormous pressure” on Russia by targeting certain individuals and companies close to President Vladimir Putin. The ruble and Russian stocks are down, and the International Monetary Fund has estimated $100 billion will exit Russia’s economy this year as the international community pushes back on its efforts.

Lew conceded that it still appears that Russia is allowing weapons and fighters to enter Ukraine, and it is not clear where that conflict is heading.

“Our goal was to impose a cost on Russia for its occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, and to deter Russian military intervention in Ukraine,” he said. “Last week’s election was a promising sign for the future of Ukraine.”

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