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Biden's anti-corruption memo is good news — and essential to US national security

Biden's anti-corruption memo is good news — and essential to US national security
© MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

On June 3, President BidenJoe BidenBaltimore police chief calls for more 'boots on the ground' to handle crime wave Biden to deliver remarks at Sen. John Warner's funeral Garland dismisses broad review of politicization of DOJ under Trump MORE issued a memorandum directing the National Security Council to coordinate a national strategy to “promote good governance … and prevent and combat corruption at home.” There’s good news and bad.

First, the bad news: The memo is needed. Corruption has long been part of American politics. In 2019, Time magazine asked historians to name the biggest scandals in our history. Their list spanned the centuries, starting with 1797’s so-called XYZ Affair, when a private citizen arranged a corrupt bargain with French diplomats. It included the 1920s’ Teapot Dome scandal, when Albert Fall, President Warren Harding’s interior secretary, took bribes for leasing former Navy oil reserves in Wyoming to a private company. There was 1986’s Iran-Contra Affair, when the Reagan administration illegally arranged to sell Iran weapons to help fund rebels fighting Nicaragua’s socialist Sandinista government.

Of course, there have also been periodic efforts to root out corruption and carry out reforms. Biden’s effort is different. He has framed his initiative as a national security imperative:

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“Corruption threatens United States national security, economic equity, global anti-poverty and development efforts, and democracy itself … In issuing this National Security Study Memorandum, I establish countering corruption as a core United States national security interest.”

This framing is an appropriate response to the Trump presidency, which made corruption a way of doing business both at home and abroad.

We had a president whose businesses profited from his being in office, with Secret Service agents housed at Trump golf properties at exorbitant rates and Trump’s D.C. hotel raking in cash from favor-seeking foreign diplomats. He corrupted America’s foreign policy with inside deals and attempts at bribery, most notoriously in his effort to get the President of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his family. Trump pardoned his first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russia — and rewarded his political crony, Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneBannon asked Trump DOJ to reimburse his legal fees from Russia probe: report Feds charge members of Three Percenters militia group over Jan. 6 attack Biden's anti-corruption memo is good news — and essential to US national security MORE, with a commuted sentence for lying to Congress and witness tampering. Add to that Trump’s cabinet officials and campaign aides indicted or forced to resign in disgrace.

Biden now aims at rooting out corruption by developing methods to “[h]old accountable … transnational criminal organizations … by … identifying, freezing, and recovering stolen assets.”

Such measures would come in handy with hackers using ransomware, such as those reportedly Russian actors who made off with $4.4 million to get Colonial Pipeline’s gas operations re-started, or those who recently shut down JBS, the world’s largest meat processor.

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Biden also seeks ways to “[c]ombat all forms of illicit finance … including by … requiring United States companies to report their beneficial owner or owners to the Department of the Treasury [and] reducing offshore financial secrecy.”

Critically, the “For the People Act,” facing a vote in the Senate, includes provisions that help address these corruption-promoting, financial barriers to transparency. The Act requires companies donating more than $10,000 to political campaigns to disclose, with limited exceptions, their contributors. 

Biden’s June 3 memo is a good start, but the president needs to frame its passage and that of related bills pending before Congress as essential to national security and his anti-corruption efforts. Doing so may help show how far opponents’ commitment to protecting America goes.

Truth and sunlight are corruption’s enemies. As Obiageli Ezekwesili, former Vice-President of the World Bank has rightly noted, “Anyone who wants to tackle corruption must be willing to go all the way. There are no shortcuts.” Together, the Biden memo and Congress’ pending anti-corruption legislation, if adopted, would take the country a long way toward preventing, if not removing, the political squalor of the Trump years.

Austin Sarat is associate provost and associate dean of the faculty and the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The views expressed here do not represent Amherst College. 

Dennis Aftergut is a former Supreme Court advocate and federal prosecutor in San Francisco.