A top official in the Treasury Department will become the next deputy director of the CIA, the White House announced Friday.
David S. Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, has been a principal architect of the Obama administration’s efforts to impose economic sanctions on Russia and Iran and to disrupt the flow of cash to terrorist groups.
Cohen’s selection for a CIA job that has often gone to agency insiders reflects the extent to which Treasury has morphed from a department created in the 18th century to print money and collect taxes into one that plays a major role in national security issues.
Although Cohen has never worked at a spy agency, he “brings a wealth of experience on many of the issues that we focus on,” CIA Director John O. Brennan said in a statement.
Cohen arrives at a time when the CIA faces a shifting array of security threats, including the emergence of brutal groups in Syria that have drawn recruits from Europe and the United States, and is under pressure to help prevent attacks.
Cohen will replace Avril D. Haines, who was the first woman to hold the CIA’s deputy director job. She recently returned to the White House to serve as President Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
Since 2011, Cohen has led many of the Treasury Department’s most aggressive overseas programs, including efforts to sever lines of financial support to terrorist groups, weapons proliferators and drug cartels, officials said.
He routinely took part in high-level White House meetings on issues “from Syria to Ukraine to Iran to counterterrorism,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication at the White House. “He’s someone who is fully up to speed, fully versed in our approach to all of the hot-button issues around the world.”
Cohen, 51, has traveled frequently to the Middle East and Europe to enlist other countries in efforts to impose economic chokeholds on adversaries. White House officials pointed to the plummeting value of Iran’s and Russia’s currencies as evidence of sanctions’ success.
Cohen has touted sanctions as key to pressuring Iran to take part in negotiations on its nuclear program but has also acknowledged the difficulties of adapting economic measures against rapidly evolving terrorist networks.
The Islamic State, which has seized territory in Iraq and Syria, “poses a different terrorist financing challenge,” Cohen said in an October speech, noting that the al-Qaeda offshoot “derives a relatively small share of its funds from deep-pocket donors” in the Persian Gulf and is therefore less vulnerable to external pressures.
Instead, the Islamic State pockets “tens of millions of dollars per month” obtained from sales of stolen oil, as well as from extortion and ransom payments, Cohen said, creating a need for Treasury to be “adapting our tools and techniques.” It is not clear whether those efforts have had a significant impact.
In selecting Cohen, the White House bypassed several internal candidates at the CIA whose eligibility might have been undermined by their association with the agency’s torture of terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Previous CIA deputies had extensive responsibility for the day-to-day management of the agency, but Brennan is seen as less inclined to delegate than his predecessors, remaining directly involved in managing most CIA operations.
Brennan, a CIA veteran who previously served as Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser at the White House, said in his statement that he had “worked closely over the past several years” with Cohen on sensitive security issues.
Cohen’s latest assignment at Treasury was a continuation of the work he did in his previous role as assistant secretary for terrorist financing. The jobs, and Treasury’s influence on national security issues, were bolstered by post-Sept. 11 reforms that gave the department new tools to go after illicit financial networks.
Cohen was partly responsible for crafting some of those tools, having served as senior aide to Treasury’s legal counsel when the USA Patriot Act was written in 2001.
Cohen worked in private legal practice between his two stints at Treasury, specializing in white-collar litigation and advising financial institutions on money-laundering regulations and sanctions compliance.
He is a graduate of Cornell University and received a law degree from Yale Law School in 1989. He is expected to be replaced, at least temporarily, at Treasury by Adam J. Szubin, the department’s director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control.