Operation Paper Tiger

Fighting terrorism with press releases

News coverage on March 21 was dominated by the war in Iraq, with one notable exception: the announcement of nationwide arrests by Operation Green Quest, a Washington-based federal task force created after September 11 to disrupt terrorist financial networks. The impression given was of a swift and decisive dragnet, with agents in four cities, including Minneapolis, executing search warrants and arresting a total of nine individuals. In a widely quoted press release, Michael Garcia, assistant director of the newly created Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), touted Green Quest's efficacy: "By dismantling these illegal networks, we are denying avenues for terrorist groups to raise and move funds in this country."

Largely elided in press accounts, however, was the fact that none of those arrested was actually charged with a terrorism-related offense. In Minnesota, where four of the arrests were made, local officials complain that Operation Green Quest's crackdown amounts to little more than a bureaucratic fiat.

On March 20, the day before the press release was issued, local IRS, ICE, and FBI agents raided five metro-area tobacco shops belonging to brothers named Bilal and Yamen Haidari. In a grand jury indictment released the same day, the Haidaris were accused of structuring bank transactions so as to conceal more than $1.8 million, some of which they allegedly sent to Lebanon. (A law designed to prevent drug dealers from hiding their assets requires that currency transactions of more than $10,000 be reported to the Treasury Department.) In addition to seizing "voluminous records," Operation Green Quest's press release asserted that agents had discovered $156,925 worth of cashier's checks sewn into the lining of a handbag intended to be smuggled aboard a flight to Beirut. The Haidaris were arrested--as were two other individuals picked up on unrelated immigration charges.

The financial crimes alleged in the indictment are serious in and of themselves: Each of the four counts with which the Haidaris are charged could carry a five-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine. Nowhere in the indictment, however, is there any mention of terrorism; indeed, the alleged illegal currency transfers to Lebanon were reportedly sometimes sent to the brothers' mother.

Operation Green Quest's press release paints a somewhat more sinister picture. Rounding up generously, it asserts that "two individuals were arrested on charges of structuring nearly $2 million worth of suspected fraud proceeds (including tobacco tax stamp fraud) into bank accounts." No such fraud is cited in the indictment, however. The release continues: "These individuals are also accused of smuggling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of monetary instruments to parties in Lebanon and Jordan." But, according to the indictment, the amount allegedly smuggled was closer to $32,000--and no mention was made of any money being sent to Jordan.

Dean Boyd, a spokesman for Operation Green Quest, insists that the agency's press release was not willfully disingenuous, and that inferences of terrorism were unfairly drawn by the media. "If you look closely, it says that there's no evidence that any of these individuals was engaged in terrorism. It just says that these are the types of financial schemes that have the potential to be exploited by terrorists." Likewise, Boyd asserts, the release notes that the investigations were unconnected, and were not part of a national anti-terrorism dragnet. All of which begs the question: Why did Green Quest issue the release in the first place?

Boyd admits some "confusion" over Operation Green Quest's ambit, as its various constituent agencies are being reorganized and shuffled into the Department of Homeland Security. The task force's primary purpose, he explains, is that of a "coordinating center" for federal investigations, like, for instance, the November 2001 raids on currency-exchange hawalas in Minneapolis.

If that is so, however, Operation Green Quest's performance last week appears to leave marked room for improvement. "They never contacted me," says U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger. "It's our case, and they didn't talk to us at all." Privately, federal agents in other cities echoed Heffelfinger's frustration with Green Quest's lack of communication.

Heffelfinger guesses that the confusion might have been the result of a conversation between a local and a Washington-based ICE agent. But he does not share the opinion that Green Quest's media coup amounted to a harmless miscommunication. "The thing that's of the greatest concern is the implication raised that the Haidari case is a terrorism case," he continues. "That's not true. I'm not prepared to make the assumption that because the money is going to the Middle East, it's going to fund terrorism. I'm not going to stand by and let a press release from Washington misconstrue what these two men are charged with."

It is, of course, too late for that.

 
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