Biden Picks a Dirty-Money Sleuth for CIA Deputy Director

David Cohen is likely to emphasize using financial tools against America’s adversaries

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UPDATED FROM DECEMBER.

David S. Cohen, tapped to be deputy director to President-elect Joe Biden’s choice of Bill Burns to run the CIA, used to enjoy being known as President Barack Obama’s “financial Batman.”

As Assistant Secretary, then Undersecretary, of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence from 2009 to 2015, Cohen reveled in plunging deep into the subterranean passages of international money laundering, shining a harsh light on militant networks lurking there and discovering and emptying their war chests.

He wasn’t particularly eloquent, but he sure knew the down-and-dirty details. He mastered every arcane nuance of the language of the handlers of blood money–how to make it disappear in Hong Kong and pop up in Barcelona, how to get spendable currency into the hands of Al Qaeda cells in Africa and ISIS combatant commanders in Syria.

Last month, Cohen was said to be under consideration to head the CIA, with the New York Times reporting that Biden “was fond of Mr. Cohen, and that Avril D. Haines, Mr. Biden’s choice to serve as director of national intelligence, also supports the potential appointment.” But in a surprise move, Biden opted for career senior diplomat Burns.

”They will be an unbeatable team,” a former senior CIA operations official told SpyTalk.

From 2015 to 2017, Cohen was a deputy director of the CIA, where he “helped set up the joint operation among the agency, the FBI. and the National Security Agency that examined Russian interference in the 2016 election,” the Times said.

Dirty money sleuth

At Treasury, Cohen also learned the specialized languages of international bankers and financial regulators. He used those skills to go after the worst of the worst, not by locking them up—that’s a job for the Justice Department, the FBI, DEA and Homeland Security—but by depriving them of funds that are the lifeblood of any organization, licit or underground.

His rhetoric, if it can be called that, can sometimes be nearly impenetrable. For instance, a 2018 conversation between Cohen and Michael Morell on Morell’s CBS radio podcast, Intelligence Matters  devolved into a discussion of “primary” versus “secondary” sanctions on Iran.

But this much was crystal clear: Cohen regards Treasury’s financial sanctions programs as “something between the sort of persuasive effect over diplomacy and the military hammer…Sanctions are right in that sweet spot.”

Cohen wielded the 28 sanctions programs under Treasury’s purview with the obsessive attention to detail of an expert financial analyst, tax lawyer, surgeon or chef. His bosses in the Obama administration took note of his Doberman Pinscher ways.

In 2014, the New York Times profiled Cohen as “the first line of attack against ISIS.”  As well, White House officials credited the Yale-trained lawyer with twisting the financial screws on Iran so severely that to escape them, in 2015, Iranian leaders began negotiations with the U.S. and other members of the UN’s Permanent Security Council, plus Germany. The next year, Tehran would sign a deal constraining its drive to develop nuclear weapons capability. The Times quoted Antony J. Blinken, then deputy national security adviser, as saying:

“It’s safe to say that without David’s relentless efforts, we would not be where we are in terms of getting the Iranians to the negotiating table with the chance of reaching a diplomatic solution.”

Game of Thrones

Cohen travelled the world enlisting allies in the fight against terrorist money laundering, another asset in running the CIA. 

Fun fact: he had a cameo in a 2019 episode of Games of Thrones, as an unnamed resident of Winterfell. “Way to blow my cover!” he cracked when the CIA tweeted out a photo.

President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal. Experts say it’s highly unlikely it can be resurrected soon, if at all, without added concessions. Since 2015, Iran has made enormous strides in developing precision-guided missiles, a grave threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the Middle East. And it has resumed enriching uranium that can be used in a nuclear bomb. 

A relentless Batman-style crusader with cape or without, Cohen’s appointment may signal that that the CIA will be doubling down on financial tools to police and disrupt America’s adversaries. It’s just another sign that its dagger now is mostly electronic.