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Doing legal battle with terrorism funders

Kai Ryssdal Oct 23, 2007

Doing legal battle with terrorism funders

Kai Ryssdal Oct 23, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: The “war on terror” came to a Dallas courtroom yesterday. And the government lost — or didn’t win, to be more precise. The Bush administration’s six-year case against a group called the Holy Land Foundation ended in a mistrial.

The Justice Department had accused Holy Land of being a front for terrorist financing for the Palestinian group Hamas. It was the third high- profile terrorist financing case where the government’s come away with less than what it had hoped for.

Dennis Lormel ran the FBI’s terrorist financing task force. He’s with the consulting firm Corporate Risk International — Mr. Lormel, good to have you with us.

Dennis Lormel: Thanks, I appreciate it.

RYSSDAL: Why is it so hard for the government to win terrorist financing cases?

Lormel: Well, these cases are very complex, and obviously terrorists are going to do what they can to hide their involvement. And the particular case that brings this to light right now is the Holy Land FOundation. And by either commingling terrorist funds or by hiding them, and manipulating the system a bit, and throwing up a number of different smoke screens, it becomes more challenging for the government to make these types of cases — and the Holy Land case is a case in point.

RYSSDAL: Well, when you were with the FBI and running the terrorist financing task force there after September 11th, as you sat at that table and tried to figure out whether to follow the money or to take these guys to court, what were your parameters? What was that discussion?

Lormel: Initially, we were looking to take them to court — and then the whole mindset of the government changed in that disruption was more important than prosecution. So we wanted to take disruptive action wherever we could. Sometimes, as in these cases, going after the terrorists in a criminal case supports the overall terrorism mission. And that was the mindset here, to go after the criminal charges. But what we also have to do is balance the current criminal cases, which are very challenging and difficult to make, with the fact that the government has already had success with the Holy Land Foundation when they froze their assets. And in doing that, you really choked that funding stream.

RYSSDAL: But let me ask you this, though: The government froze those assets back in 2001 — six years later, the government was unable to win a conviction in court. What does that tell you about the merits of the decision to freeze the assets, if you can’t convict?

Lormel: Well, if you go back to the 2001 action, that held up in court. When Holy Land challenged it, the judge in that trial determined that there was enough justification for the government action, and cited that in her finding. And then the government won that on appeal, also.

RYSSDAL: You mentioned intelligence information — how much of the fight against terrorist financing is based on secret intelligence information that nobody ever finds out about, and how much is out there in sort of open court?

Lormel: In cases like this — and in this case in particular, and the case up in Chicago, Benevolence International, and a case down in Florida, relied on intelligence information, intelligence overhears, that basically were used… Well, the intent was to use them to corroborate the intent of the group of subjects involved, that they were in fact members of the terrorist organization. Or in fact, were sympathizers and willingly participated.

RYSSDAL: Let me get back to something you said just a moment ago… These cases are complex. Are they too complex to keep taking them to court?

Lormel: No. The reality is, if there are cases that predicated the government should weight heavily the prospect of taking those cases to trial, I think that the government made the right decision by taking this case to court, even though it was an incredibly challenging case to bring. And I would expect that they should move to re-try the case.

RYSSDAL: Dennis Lormel spent 30 years with the FBI — he ended up his tours running the terrorist financing task force in Washington. He’s now a senior vice president at the consultant firm Corporate Risk International. Mr. Lormel, thanks a lot for your time.

Lormel: Oh, thank you Kai, I appreciate it.

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