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Me And Ofac And Ahmed The Egyptian, By Ann Jones

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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The big war news on the front page of the New York Times last weekend was headlined: "U.S. Is Planning Buildup in Gulf After Iraq Exit."  Its first sentence: "The Obama administration plans to bolster the American military presence in the Persian Gulf after it withdraws the remaining troops from Iraq this year, according to officials and diplomats."  Of course, for those reading TomDispatch.com, this news was undoubtedly less than startling, given that Nick Turse nailed down the same long-term buildup almost two years ago in a post presciently entitled "Out of Iraq, Into the Gulf." 

Nonetheless, that Times piece has a little gem buried in it, one that should get Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the Onion Orwellian-geopolitical-statement-of-the-week award.  The newspaper of record quotes her as saying, "We will have a robust continuing presence throughout the region, which is proof of our ongoing commitment to Iraq and to the future of that region, which holds such promise and should be freed from outside interference to continue on a pathway to democracy."  Yes, it's a fact: the United States is, on principle, against outside interference everywhere on Earth, and if you don't believe us, we're happy to garrison your country to prove it.

It's evidently not, by the way, the season to write for TomDispatch.com.  State Department official Peter Van Buren, whose firsthand book about the debacle of "nation-building" in Iraq, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, has gotten so much attention lately, and who wrote at this site about his (mis)treatment by his employer, has now been stripped of his security clearance and suspended from his job.  He's at home facing future punishment for being an honest man -- and so, evidently, not up to diplomatic snuff -- in his continuing blunt comments on the State Department's path to madness in Iraq.  Here's how the official departmental letter put the matter: "[Y]ou have shown an unwillingness to comply with Department rules and regulations regarding writing and speaking on matters of official concern, including by publishing articles and blog posts on such matters without submitting them to the Department for review, and that your judgment in the handling of protected information is questionable."  Mind you, this is in an American world of security overkill in which, according to Dana Priest and William M. Arkin of the Washington Post, 854,000 people hold top security clearances, while "some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States."

In the meantime, Ann Jones, who has regularly reported for this site from grim global battle zones, finally left them for -- one bloody massacre aside -- a land so peaceable you can practically hear a pin drop.  I'm talking about Norway.  But as with Van Buren, no matter how far you go, the U.S. government still gets its man (... er, woman).  What that's meant for her is that, even in peaceable Norway, Jones found herself embroiled in some small corner of post-9/11 American national security madness.  We've all heard about what happens when you find yourself trapped on a no-fly list, but how about a no-pay list (and worse yet, it's your own money)?  Tom

Me and OFAC and Ahmed the Egyptian
One Citizen's Misadventure in Securityland

By Ann Jones

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. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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