What Happened When Overzealous Terrorist Hunters Took Off With My Money
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Where did I go wrong? Was it playing percussion with an Occupy Wall Street band in Times Square when I was in New York recently? Or was it when I returned to my peaceful new home in Oslo and deleted an email invitation to hear Newt Gingrich lecture Norwegians on the American election? (Yes, even here.)
I don’t know how it happened. Or even, really, what happened. Or what it means. So I’ve got no point -- only a lot of anxiety. I usually write about the problems of the world, but now I’ve got one of my own. They evidently think I’m a terrorist.
That is, someone in the U.S. government who specializes in finding terrorists seems to have found me and laid a heavy hand on my bank account. I think this is wrong, of course, but try to tell that to a faceless, acronymic government agency.
It all started with a series of messages from my bank: Citibank. Yeah, I know, I should have moved my money long ago, but in the distant past before Citibank became Citigroup, it was my friendly little neighborhood bank, and I guess I’m in a rut. Besides, I learned when I made plans to move to Norway that if your money is in a small bank, it has to be sent to a big bank like Citibank or Chase to wire it to you when you need it, which meant I was trapped anyway.
So the first thing I noticed was that one of those wires with money I needed never arrived. When I politely inquired, Citibank told me that the transaction hadn’t gone through. Why not? All my fault, they insisted, for not having provided complete information. Long story short: we went round and round for a couple of weeks, as I coughed up ever more morsels of previously unsolicited personal information. Only then did a bit of truth emerge.
The bank wasn’t actually holding up the delivery of the money. The funds had, in fact, left my account weeks before, along with a wire transfer fee. The responsible party was OFAC.
Oh what? I wondered. OFAC. It rhymes with Oh-Tack, but you’ve got to watch how you pronounce it. Speak carelessly and the name sounds like just what you might say upon learning that you’ve been sucked into the ultimate top-secret bureaucratic sinkhole. It turns out, the bank informs me, that OFAC is a division of the U.S. Treasury Department that “reviews” transactions.
“Why me?” I ask. As a long-time reporter I find it a strange question, as strange as finding myself working on a story about me.
By way of an answer, the bank refers me to an Internet link that calls up a 521-page report so densely typed it looks like wallpaper. Entitled “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons,” it turns out to be a list of what seems to be every Muslim business and social organization on the planet. That’s when I Google OFAC, go to its site, and find out that the acronym stands for the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Its mission description reads chillingly. It “administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States.” And it turns out to be a subsidiary of something much bigger that goes by the unnerving name of “Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.”