‘Financial Batman’ becomes top spy

The new No. 2 at the CIA is reportedly known around the White House as the Obama administration’s “financial Batman,” and has been the point man for getting at terrorists and hostile foreign nations through their checkbooks.

David Cohen, whom President Obama appointed to become the deputy director of the CIA on Friday, has spent the last six years at the Treasury Department focusing on cutting off terrorists’ and unfriendly governments’ access to cash.


Before that, he helped craft some of the crucial laws the government uses to root out terrorists and criminals trying to hide their wealth.

While the Yale and Cornell-educated lawyer might not seem like a spy in the mold of James Bond or Carrie Mathison of "Homeland," his work has proved critical to the Obama administration's attempt to stop Islamic extremists and keep foreign capitals in check.  

“This administration has increasingly relied on financial tools to achieve what they want to achieve, both on terrorism and in foreign policy, so Cohen is the guy who’s right at the center of that,” said Mieke Eoyang, the head of the national security program at Third Way, a centrist think tank.

“You can do all the disrupting of the individuals that you want, but if you dry up their money, their ability to make changes and to build a movement is much more limited,” she added. “You’ve got a bunch of guys in the desert without access to money and guns; it makes much less of a difference than if they have access to those things.”

In the last few months at the Treasury Department, Cohen has been the Obama administration’s point man for tracking the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) sale of oil to the rest of the globe. In keeping tabs on the oil supply and trying to block off the group from the global financial world, Cohen has been perhaps as important to the fight against ISIS as the international bombing efforts against the terrorist network.

“ISIL’s primary funding tactics enable it today to generate tens of millions of dollars per month,” he said in a high-profile speech in October, using an alternate acronym for ISIS.

“So as part of the United States’ broader strategy to degrade and defeat ISIL ... we at the Treasury Department are intensifying our focus on undermining ISIL’s finances.” 

In November, The New York Times called Cohen “a first line of attack” against the extremist organization.

Before that, his sights were set squarely on Iran, where financial sanctions have been targeted against its oil sector and other areas to prevent the government from being able to develop a nuclear weapon. He has also helped craft sanctions on Russia, in response to its incursion into Ukraine.

Much of Cohen's work has involved meetings in far-flung corners of the world, trying to convince leaders in Turkey, Qatar and other nations to fall in line with the U.S.’s sanctions.

Earlier in his career, he helped write portions of law that would go on to become the Patriot Act and an update to the Bank Secrecy Act, which targets money laundering.