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The Money Man In the Terror Fight

Stuart A. Levey has a hand in initiatives against money laundering and weapons of mass destruction. He is the senior Treasury official overseeing the program that taps a database of financial records in search of terrorist transactions.
Stuart A. Levey has a hand in initiatives against money laundering and weapons of mass destruction. He is the senior Treasury official overseeing the program that taps a database of financial records in search of terrorist transactions. (By Chris Greenberg -- Bloomberg News)

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After the firm merged with Baker Botts, whose senior partner is James L. Baker III, Levey was dispatched to Florida as part of the 2000 election recount. Like many of the Republican lawyers behind Bush v. Gore , Levey joined the government shortly afterward. He chose the Justice Department, serving under then-Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson.

Levey started out handling immigration issues. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Thompson promoted him to chief of staff and added money laundering and anti-terrorism activities to his portfolio.

Thompson is among a long list of conservative mentors to Levey. They include Judge Laurence H. Silberman, former senator John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) and Martin Peretz, the New Republic's editor in chief, who was Levey's Harvard thesis adviser and who describes him as "dazzlingly smart."

Levey joined Treasury shortly before Bush's reelection in 2004 and took on North Korean counterfeiting operations. It turned out, he discovered, that simply asking bank managers to drop their business with Kim Jong Il worked better than surprising them with public embarrassment, as had been the strategy during Bush's first term.

Other efforts, such as financially crippling Hamas and the Iranian government, have proven more challenging.

This February, Levey traveled to the Middle East with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shortly after Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, had won Palestinian elections. As part of a small team of administration officials grappling with the results, Levey tried to figure out how to get money to the Palestinian people without going through Hamas.

The trip was important for Levey. He had spent his junior year studying at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, where he worked on an undergraduate thesis on Meir Kahane, the Brooklyn-born rabbi. Kahane had founded the Israeli group Kach, listed by the State Department and the Israeli government as a terrorist organization.

"Kahane was an angry, vicious person who preyed on the fears of people who were vulnerable," Levey said. "Terrorism lives in different cultures, and what got me interested was how it was possible that in a country with such a strong sense of democratic values, this person gained real popularity."

On the way back from Jerusalem, Levey approached Rice on a different matter: financial levers he thought could be used to pressure Iran. Rice was impressed, her aides said, and Levey was asked to lead a task force designed to implement financial sanctions against Tehran if negotiations over its nuclear program fell apart.

But it has been a tough sell. Levey's direct approach with bank managers still comes in handy, but he has had difficulty persuading allies to sign on to a plan that will cost them in Iranian trade and oil.

"I've been in lots of meetings with foreign officials where I tell them what I want, and they look like they want to show me the door," he said.

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


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