By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010; A10
Federal prosecutors in New York are ratcheting up an aggressive strategy to pursue terrorists, drug traffickers and corrupt public officials who operate on foreign soil.
The expansion of traditional crime-fighting boundaries, which has its roots in an approach begun by the office in the 1990s, has been controversial among experts, with some questioning whether the effort is the best use of the U.S. government's limited resources. But advocates say that using the long arm of American law to apprehend international figures whose crimes involve the United States might be the only way to attack an increasingly sophisticated global criminal threat.
Former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo became the latest target when he was arrested this week by police in Guatemala after money-laundering charges were unsealed in New York. A federal grand jury in Manhattan accused Portillo of conspiring to divert millions of dollars in military funds and donations intended to buy children's books into the pockets of relatives and close political aides. Some of the Guatemalan money found its way into U.S. banks, including the institution once known as Riggs Bank in the District, court papers say.
Since taking office last year, Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, has launched or reemphasized criminal cases against a young Somali pirate accused of hijacking the ship Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean; three African men charged with conspiracy to commit narco-terrorism in support of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; and a Guantanamo Bay detainee who had been charged in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, which killed 224 people.
"The world is becoming more interdependent and more global and so is crime," Bharara said in an interview. "In order to stay one step ahead of the criminals, you need to figure out a way to be as sophisticated as they are. . . . You have to go where the evidence is, where the crimes are plotted and where the money is being hidden."
In the past three years alone, federal prosecutors from New York's Southern District have traveled to more than 40 countries, including Afghanistan, Egypt, Poland and Venezuela, a spokeswoman said.
The New York office prosecuted defendants who detonated a truck bomb in 1993 in the garage of the World Trade Center, and the office later secured a conviction in another landmark terrorism case against Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the blind sheikh.
Officials said the office's approach requires careful choreography with other agencies and dignitaries. Edward O'Callaghan, a former co-leader of the terrorism and national security unit at the U.S. attorney's office, said prosecutors developed relationships with FBI and CIA operatives who investigate complex cases.
Delegations of foreign officials often visit the prosecutors in New York. During his first week in office, Bharara met with justice ministers from Ghana. A few months later, that relationship paid dividends when authorities in the United States were seeking the quick transfer of three African narco-terrorism suspects. The suspects arrived only days after being captured in a Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation.
The strategy doesn't always work so smoothly.
For the past decade, prosecutors have waited for the extradition from the United Kingdom of two men charged in the embassy bombings in Africa. The cases have made their way through courts in Great Britain but now must be heard by the European Court of Human Rights, which did not exist at the time of the bombings.
Another complicated case involves arms dealer Viktor Bout, arrested in Thailand in April 2008 and later indicted in New York on charges of conspiracy to provide support to foreign terrorist groups. Bout has been in custody for nearly two years, but Thai courts have rejected American requests to extradite him, including a plea last year by the U.S. deputy attorney general.
Within the U.S. legal community, some academics and former prosecutors ask about the wisdom of targeting international figures while traditional American law enforcement missions suffer from a lack of funding.
"Taxpayers should question whether it is a wise use of U.S. resources to prosecute the former president of Guatemala, who left office six years ago, for embezzlement that has nothing to do with the United States," said Kirby Behre, a former prosecutor in the District who is a partner in the Paul Hastings law firm. "There is a good argument that the former president should be prosecuted by his own country."
At times, the zeal of prosecutors bent on building a criminal case has complicated sensitive diplomatic relations between countries, veterans of the U.S. attorney's office say. The goal, former prosecutor O'Callaghan said, is "to figure out how to be responsibly aggressive."
Security and financial concerns continue to loom over the cases of the most notorious international actors who could face trial in New York City.
Members of Congress from both major parties sounded alarms after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in November that self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men charged with using planes as weapons of mass destruction would be brought to New York. The Obama administration has yet to notify lawmakers of the imminent transfer of the men from Guantanamo, and several politicians have said they will try to prevent the move by blocking funds.
Portillo, who lost his immunity from prosecution when he left office in 2004, has signaled through attorneys that he will fight extradition on the U.S. charges, which he says are politically motivated.
The most famous international fugitive to be indicted in Manhattan, Osama bin Laden, remains at large.
Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.