The Bush administration is planning new measures that would target the U.S. assets of anyone conducting business with a handful of Iranian, North Korean and Syrian companies believed by Washington to be involved in weapons programs, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The latest action is outlined in a draft executive order administration officials are hoping President Bush will sign before attending the Group of Eight summit in Scotland on Saturday. Officials who agreed to discuss the details only on the condition of anonymity said that the order's success would rely heavily on U.S. intelligence and that it is modeled in part on measures the government took against al Qaeda's finances shortly after the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001.
According to an internal government memo, it would provide a new tool in the efforts to stop trafficking in weapons of mass destruction "by authorizing the blocking or 'freezing' of assets of WMD proliferators and their supporters, and thereby prohibiting U.S. persons from engaging in transactions with them."
The effort would begin by targeting just eight entities, seven of which are suspected of working on missile programs, and not on chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. According to a government list obtained by The Washington Post, three companies identified are North Korean; four are Iranian, including the country's energy department; and one is a Syrian government research facility. Three of the eight companies have been targeted previously by U.S. sanctions, as have most Iranian government agencies. None is subject to any international sanctions, and the entities freely conduct business with companies around the world.
But the draft executive order goes far beyond previous measures by threatening the U.S. assets of individuals or companies, including foreign banks, that do business with those on the list.
"If there is a bank in some European capital that is participating in working with one of the entities and that bank has some assets in the U.S., it is conceivable that some action could be taken to the bank's assets here," said one senior official with knowledge of the order's details. Russian and Chinese companies in particular, which do enormous business with Iran and North Korea, could be more affected than others by the new strategy, officials said.
Bush made the centerpiece of his national security strategy a promise to prevent what he called "the world's most destructive weapons" from getting into the hands of the worst U.S. foes. That resolve, and the strategy to achieve it, brought the president to war in Iraq against a source of weapons that were never found.
Since then, Bush has struggled to roll back advancing nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. Officials said the White House spent the past six months devising this new strategy in the hopes of improving these efforts.
A presidential commission that reviewed the failings of the prewar intelligence on Iraq made recommendations to improve intelligence-gathering and halt trafficking in weapons of mass destruction. Officials said their new effort would address a key recommendation by the commission but could not identify which one.
The commission found U.S. intelligence knows "disturbingly little" about weapons activities in Iran and North Korea. Administration officials said the lack of hard evidence accounted for the limited number of companies targeted.
Administration officials declined to publicly discuss the "WMD Proliferation Financing Executive Order," saying they do not confirm details or discuss such decisions before they are signed by the president.
But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said "the administration has been thoroughly reviewing the WMD commission's recommendations over the last three months to ensure we are doing all we can to protect the safety of our citizens."
With the naming of a Syrian facility, Damascus, which is suspected of providing cover for insurgents in Iraq and targeting political foes in Lebanon, could take the place once reserved for Iraq alongside North Korea and Iran as members of what Bush referred to as an "axis of evil."
The Bush administration has sought to portray itself as leading the global fight against proliferators, and officials said they want to use the G-8 summit to highlight their successes. But the intelligence failings on Iraq may make it difficult to convince allies that U.S. information on the companies is solid enough for them to sign on to the program.
Washington began sharing details of the proposed plan this past weekend with Britain, France and Germany, which are in the middle of delicate negotiations with Iran. The Europeans are hoping incentives, not sanctions, will persuade Iran's newly elected leader to give up some of the country's nuclear capabilities.
Officials also said there are fears within the U.S. government as well that it could face legal challenges from targeted companies and that they would be hard-pressed to respond to them in court without revealing intelligence. "This whole thing is going to have to be based on good and reliable intelligence that will not lead to any litigation," one of the officials said. "That's why it is important to be thorough."
The United States targeted the assets of hundreds of individuals after the 2001 terrorist attacks in an effort that went virtually unchallenged in the courts, in part because some individuals were listed by aliases and others were on the run in Afghanistan or feared capture if they tried to reclaim financial holdings.
But public and private companies and banks in the United States, Europe and Asia are unlikely to sit back if their assets are frozen for legitimate business dealings.
Two U.S. officials with detailed knowledge of the decision-making behind the new strategy expressed confidence in the quality of intelligence on the eight companies. But they said the cases were not black and white, particularly because most of the companies deal in dual-use components, and the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency is running a huge part of the country's energy sector.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.