Follow the Money

Courtesy Reuters


As the international financial system has expanded, so too have financial abuses -- money laundering, tax evasion, and rogue banking. Globalization is now changing the nature of these age-old problems, threatening to undermine U.S. diplomatic, economic, and even strategic interests. Multilateral efforts have begun to combat these abuses and have already achieved some impressive results. But time is running short for the Bush administration to act, and its decisions now will determine whether these multilateral efforts will continue.

Financial abuses have been around for as long as there have been finances to abuse. Money laundering and tax evasion are often viewed as complicated, boring matters hinging on the minutiae of tax codes and regulatory laws. But that image masks a destructive, often bloody reality. Drug cartels, arms traffickers, terrorist groups, and common criminal organizations use banks to launder their dirty money, making it appear as the product of legitimate business. Tax evaders structure transactions to hide their wealth from legitimate authorities, weakening national tax bases. Corrupt government officials exploit banks to facilitate their own misdeeds, breeding a lawless business culture and undermining public confidence in national financial systems. And the underregulated banking systems that facilitate these abuses have sparked financial meltdowns around the world.

The United States and many of its economic allies have long understood these threats and know that "following the money" can unearth big vulnerabilities in criminal syndicates. Over the years, their governments -- remembering that Al Capone was put behind bars for tax evasion rather than murder -- developed legal and regulatory regimes to help detect and deter financial abuses. Banks and other financial-service providers were regulated and supervised. Money laundering and tax evasion were criminalized, banks were required to identify and report suspicious transactions, company-incorporation and trust-formation laws were passed to encourage transparency, and law enforcement agencies developed specialized investigative skills.

As criminal organizations began to operate across international borders, national regulators and law enforcement agencies began to share information. In recent

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