The long arm of Uncle Sam

He's been called one of the most powerful men in international finance, but most ordinary Americans have probably never heard of him or the office he directs--unless they've traveled to Cuba illegally, done business with a Colombian drug lord, or helped to fund terrorist activities.

R. Richard Newcomb '68 is director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a little-known division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury charged with tracking and dismantling the flow of funds to Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist sympathizers. He also oversees the implementation of America's economic embargoes and sanctions against unfriendly nations like Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Serbia, and individuals such as narcotics traffickers.

Much of Newcomb's focus in the last eighteen months has been on daylighting Al Qaeda's funding network. He's led six delegations to the Middle East and works with governments there to expose charities and other institutions that finance terrorism. It's certainly not the first emergency to keep him at work around the clock. Since taking the job at OFAC in 1987, Newcomb has been involved in virtually every foreign-policy crisis faced by the four administrations he's served.

While the media focus attention on soldiering and diplomatic handshaking, often the most trenchant element of international relations lies in the finances. "This is the other front," Newcomb told a Washington Post reporter, regarding OFAC's freeze of Kuwait's foreign assets--an estimated $100 billion--within six hours of its invasion by Iraq in 1990. "My staff members are an elite category of highly trained professional men and women devoted to waging economic warfare."

Some of OFAC's targets involve just a few individuals, like the disgruntled Florida marlin fishermen who were told in 1992 that they could not participate in a tournament off Cuba if they planned on spending even one American dime in that embargoed nation. Chess master Bobby Fisher also raised the ire of Newcomb's office for playing a match against Boris Spassky in Yugoslavia in 1992, in violation of U.S.-backed sanctions against the Balkan nation.

From an export embargo to UNITA in Angola to a prohibition of financial transactions with Syria, OFAC has come to represent the long arm of Uncle Sam-in many cases, to the considerable consternation of parties who regard themselves as innocent bystanders. Indeed, his office is called upon to issue some twenty-five thousand licenses, or exceptions to trade prohibitions, every year. Many involve rulings demanding weeks of coordination with state and national agencies and often involve litigation.

"I'm sued an awful lot," Newcomb says. And sometimes, because of the extraordinarily high stakes, "the hardball can get a little rough." Nevertheless, he maintains a calm befitting a clergyman--authors Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in their recent book, The Age of Sacred Terror, describe it as "the gentle demeanor of a village parson"--and he says he wakes up every morning eager to go to work, which routinely is a fourteen-hour day.

Newcomb set his sights on working at OFAC as a young Treasury Department attorney in the early 1980s, when he participated in the settlement of some $5.5 billion in bank claims following the Algiers Accord, which brought an end to the Iranian hostage crisis. "That got me involved in the financial aspects of foreign policy,"says Newcomb, and he's been hooked ever since.

The sanctions office was established by President Roosevelt during World War II to administer an oil embargo against Japan and block access to Jewish assets by Hitler. But the Treasury Department has been issuing embargoes and sanctions since the Civil War. Newcomb currently administers about two dozen.

One of the most successful programs has been the Kingpin Designation Act of 1999, he says. A follow-up to sanctions launched by President Clinton in 1995 against narcotics traffickers in Colombia, the Kingpin Act gave OFAC the authority to enforce similar sanctions against traffickers on a global basis. Since then, Newcomb's office has exposed hundreds of individuals and businesses engaged in international narcotics trafficking and posted their names on the OFAC Web site.

Newcomb's primary weapon in tracking the flow of cash and other assets of targeted nations, organizations, and individuals is a vast communications network linking some of the most powerful agencies in the world, like the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. departments of justice and state, and the U.S. military, foreign allies, the United Nations, multinational and federal banks, businesses, and individuals.

He is quick to credit his one hundred-plus staff for the successes he's enjoyed over the years. "I have a motivated, energized group of people. I've got MBAs, lawyers, and Ph.D.s," including a Kenyon alumna, Elizabeth Houston '93, an attorney working in the narcotics and terrorism division.

Newcomb says he never thought he'd be in the job for this long. The quality of the issues and the substance of what he's called upon to decide every day make it consistently beguiling, he admits.

Back to Top