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Destabilizing Iraq, Broadly Defined

By Walter Pincus
Monday, July 23, 2007

Be careful what you say and whom you help -- especially when it comes to the Iraq war and the Iraqi government.

President Bush issued an executive order last week titled "Blocking Property of Certain Persons Who Threaten Stabilization Efforts in Iraq." In the extreme, it could be interpreted as targeting the financial assets of any American who directly or indirectly aids someone who has committed or "poses a significant risk of committing" violent acts "threatening the peace or stability of Iraq" or who undermines "efforts to promote economic reconstruction and political reform" in the war-torn country.

The executive order, released Tuesday, was designed to target "perpetrators of violence in Iraq including Shiite militia groups linked to Iran, Sunni insurgent groups with sanctuary in Syria, and other indigenous Iraqi insurgent groups," said Molly Millerwise, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, which will determine who is in violation of the order. The move follows similar Bush orders to freeze assets of members or associates of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and former Iraqi government officials, Millerwise said. "It fills in the cracks," she added.

White House press secretary Tony Snow offered further clarification at a briefing on Tuesday: "What this is really aimed at is insurgents and those who come across the border . . . or anybody who is caught providing support or poses a significant risk of providing support to those who may come across the border."

However, the text of the order, if interpreted broadly, could cast a far bigger net to include not just those who commit violent acts or pose the risk of doing so in Iraq, but also third parties -- such as U.S. citizens in this country -- who knowingly or unknowingly aid or encourage such people.

Under the order, the Treasury secretary -- in consultation with the secretaries of defense and state -- creates the list of those whose assets are to be frozen. However, the targeting of not just those who support perpetrators of violence but also those who support individuals who "pose a significant risk" of committing violence goes far beyond normal legal language related to intent and could be applied in a highly arbitrary manner, said Bruce Fein, a senior Justice Department official in the Reagan administration and a frequent Bush administration critic.

Fein also questioned the executive order's inclusion of third parties, such as U.S. citizens who assist, sponsor or make "any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services" to assist people on the Treasury list. "What about a lawyer hired to get someone off the list?" Fein asked.

The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control keeps a "Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons" roll that includes those covered by several such executive orders. It most recently ran to 276 pages; of the roughly 11,000 entries, more than 700 are Iraq-related. Millerwise said the list is primarily for use by banks and other financial institutions that regularly check it to freeze assets and prevent financial transfers.

What happens then to the Shiite Iraqi American who sends money or speaks out in support of humanitarian efforts by Moqtada al-Sadr's political party? We'll have to wait and see. Though Millerwise said the Treasury Department already has some names in mind for the list, they will be disclosed only after their assets under U.S. control are frozen.

Meanwhile, the department must develop rules and regulations to carry out the order, a process that Fein said he hopes will protect civil liberties that could be at risk.

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them tofineprint@washpost.com.

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