New CIA Deputy Chief: Expert on Following Terrorist Money — David Cohen Worked with Israel, Many Others

[This is adapted from an article written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and previous books on Israeli intelligence and national security.]

While all eyes in the world were on Paris following the terror attacks this month, President Barack Obama announced the appointment of David Cohen to be the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA has been seen as a WASP stronghold since it was founded.

Just in the last decade-and-a-half individuals from minority groups in the US have begun to obtain middle and high-level positions at the agency.  The number of Jews on staff at the CIA has been, and remains, relatively few. In the past, the CIA representative in Israel was Jewish.  There was a Jewish man who was CIA director in 1995-1996, John Deutch.

David Cohen's official Treasury portrait

David Cohen’s official Treasury portrait

Cohen can now be considered the second most important Jewish figure in the Obama administration following the Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, who has been Cohen’s boss at Treasury.

Cohen will replace Avril Haines who was the first woman to ever hold the office of deputy director. Haines will join the White House as Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

The appointment of Cohen, who has no experience in an intelligence organization, also signifies the direction in which the CIA and other Western organizations — including Israeli intelligence — are headed in the face of new challenges.

One challenge is summed up by the catchphrase “follow the money.”

Cohen’s appointment is good news for Israeli intelligence units that track terror financing and that follow Iranian attempts to circumvent the sanctions regime. Cohen has visited Israel a number of times to discuss these issues with intelligence personnel who also met with him in Washington.

Cohen served in his prior position at the Treasury for the past three-and-a-half years and was responsible for overseeing the US sanctions regime against Iran in order to stop its nuclear arms program.

Cohen, 51, is married, has two children and is the son of a doctor. Raised in Boston, he does not give special mention to his Jewish background in interviews, seemingly in order not to be labeled by the Jewish community as “one of our own.”

He studied at Cornell and at Yale, where he completed his law degree and researched nuclear management. He served as a law clerk to a federal judge and then joined the ranks of a law firm specializing in white collar crime. After nine years he joined the US Department of the Treasury. 

At the start of his career at Treasury, Cohen was a legal advisor. During the administration of President George W. Bush, Cohen was involved with the drafting of the USA Patriot Act of 2001 that limited civil rights in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks. 

After he was appointed under-secretary at the Department of the Treasury, Cohen was involved primarily in the issues of terror-financing and the sanctions against Iran. His firm positions on these issues earned him the nickname, “the sanctions guru.”

Cohen worked with the US intelligence community and with those of US allies including Israel during this role. During his contact with Israeli intelligence officials he helped the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) in its efforts to stop the flow of money to Hamas, but especially in its efforts to follow the financing of Hezbollah and Iranian efforts to evade the economic sanctions against it.

Recently Cohen has placed an emphasis on the effort to dry up funding sources of Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS).

“The financing of ISIL presents a challenge for us that is different than ones we have faced in the past. It has accumulated a large amount of capital, unprecedented in its speed; and its sources of funding are different from most of the other terror groups in the world,” Cohen said in a speech three months ago. 

“In contrast to al-Qaeda, for example, only a small amount of ISIS funds come from donors with deep pockets, so the funds are not dependent on international money transfers. Instead, ISIS accumulated its wealth from criminal and terror activities,” Cohen said, likely in reference to ISIS gains from ransom payouts and revenues from oil.  

Assuming the West reaches a deal with Iran this year that curbs Iran’s suspected nuclear arms ambitions, in exchange for the removal of the sanctions regime, the greatest challenge facing David Cohen in his new role as deputy director of the CIA will be tracking the financing of the Islamic State.

January 19, 2015

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