FinCEN Russian backchannel compromises agency effectiveness


In 2015, officials within the US Treasury Department Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes unit used a network of private Gmail and Hotmail accounts set up by the Russians with the stated goal of jointly defeating ISIS. Soon, however, instead the Russian financial crimes agency was using the back channel to seek sensitive information on enemies in the US and elsewhere - individuals such as the newspaper publisher Alexander Lebedev, a company tied to the Panama Papers, and nearly two dozen other entities. Staff continued using the back channel instead of the purpose-built 160-country Egmont Secure Web through 2017, even though as early as 2016 the department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network unit, as well as its security office and counterterrorism unit, warned that the Russians were manipulating the system to conduct "fishing expeditions" and could use the system to spread malware. Senior FinCEN analysts believe that the Russians' move was part of a long-term strategy to compromise the Treasury by cultivating civil servants. The story is part of a wider disarray within the US financial intelligence system; FinCEN analysts played a key role in ongoing investigations by the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller into the finances of US president Donald Trump and his associates. As a result, some critical financial records pertaining to Trump associates and Russian figures were not turned over to Congress, even after numerous requests, and the agency's effectiveness in countering global money laundering, terrorism, and drug trafficking was compromised. Among the consequences: the US was unable to provide timely help to the UK after the London Bridge and Ariana Grande concert attacks in London England in 2017. At least ten FinCEN employees had filed formal whistleblower complaints by December 2018.
Writer: Anthony Cormer and Jason Leopold
Publication: BuzzFeed News

tags: corruption, Russia, US, FinCEN, anti-terrorism, money laundering, whistleblowers, investigations

Related learning resources