Congress can defend against Russia by outlawing anonymous shell companies
Immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Government and its allies unleashed unprecedented financial warfare against terrorism.
On Sept. 24, 2001, President George W. Bush announced that “at 12:01 this morning a major thrust of our war on terrorism began with the stroke of a pen. Today, we have launched a strike on the financial foundation of the global terror network.” In collaboration with other law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the Treasury Department started using sanctions to freeze terrorist assets and take down their financial networks. A month later, the Patriot Act enacted the most sweeping expansion of the U.S. anti-money laundering regime in a generation, while Treasury pushed the multilateral Financial Action Task Force to expand its mandate to cover terrorist financing (setting relevant policy standards that were later adopted by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and United Nations).
And it worked.
While many efforts across the government and around the world contributed to the prevention of any more terrorist attacks on the same scale or worse than Sept. 11, documents found in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound showed that Al Qaeda had been struggling financially since it was cut off from old lines of funding.
Unfortunately, no comparable response has been mounted since Russia similarly launched a new and devastating form of attack on Western democracies, from its “sweeping and systematic” interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to at least 362 operations targeting 41 European countries since 2000.
Rather than reorganizing U.S. laws and administrative priorities around the new threat and leading allies to do the same, neither Congress nor the administration have seriously fortified our defenses against the tools authoritarian regimes continue to deploy against us.
As with counterterrorism, a leading component of any such campaign would have to be financial.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s greatest vulnerability could be within the reach of U.S. and European financial regulators. Putin and his cronies have stolen hundreds of billions of dollars from the Russian people and laundered their ill-gotten wealth through anonymous shell companies that they use to secretly invest in high-end properties located mainly in the U.S. and the U.K. Moreover, Russian oligarchs spend some of this fortune undermining democracies by enriching corruptible elites, donating to illiberal populists, fostering energy dependence, funding networks of pro-Kremlin media outlets and non-governmental organizations, and empowering fringe movements such as paramilitaries.
Finding and freezing this dirty Russian money hidden within our own borders is the simplest and strongest way to deter and defund Russia’s continued aggression. The first and most important step would be to catch up to almost every other developed country by outlawing anonymous shell companies. That is, U.S. firms should be required to reveal to Treasury who truly controls and enjoys the benefits of corporate ownership.
The good news is that after years of delay amid political gridlock, momentum is building in Congress to take this action against anonymous shell companies.
One addition that would strengthen the national security benefits of the legislation would be to make Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network responsible for addressing the ways authoritarian regimes and their proxies use illicit finance to undermine democracies. Congress should require Treasury to both add this undertaking explicitly to their own mission and push the international community to do the same, like the counterterrorism effort launched by Treasury in the weeks after Sept. 11.
With or without that addition, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) should pick up where the four personal offices left off and schedule full Banking Committee hearings to address the discussion draft.
On Wednesday, the House Financial Services Committee voted in favor of corresponding legislation by a solid margin of 43-16, including support from 10 Republicans.
Both the Senate and House bills feature bipartisan sponsorship, as well as contributions and concessions from both sides to limit the burden on businesses, protect privacy, and win the support of key interest groups, while maintaining the core benefits of corporate transparency. This helps pressure House leadership to schedule a floor vote and Senate Banking to take up the newly announced discussion draft. Getting this done will continue to require rising above partisan differences and putting national security concerns first.
Russian interference in Western democracies aims to split apart citizens, political parties, and allies. Our strongest defense involves standing together across these internal divisions to shore up vulnerabilities, and the best way to do that is bipartisan legislation banning anonymous shell companies.
Josh Rudolph is the fellow for malign finance of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan transatlantic organization with the stated aim of countering efforts to undermine democratic institutions in the United States and Europe. He formerly served at the International Monetary Fund, the National Security Council, the U.S. Treasury, and J.P. Morgan. Follow him on Twitter @JoshRudes