This Fith Avenue skyscraper in New York City, owned by a shell company, was used by Iran to launder money and evade U.S. sanctions.

This Fith Avenue skyscraper in New York City, owned by a shell company, was used by Iran to launder money and evade U.S. sanctions. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Strip the World’s Worst Actors of a Key Financial Tool

The U.S. and its allies need to rip the veil of secrecy from the anonymous shell corporations that help drug dealers, terror groups, and kleptocratic dictators.

Beginning with the U.S. intervention in Somalia in 1992, an entire generation of military personnel has been deployed to bring stability to places like Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. None of these interventions has resulted in a lasting peace. What explains this dismal record? During our deployments to the latter four, at least, we confronted a common theme.

In Bosnia, our efforts were obstructed by “parallel power structures.” In Kosovo, we discovered that the Kosovo Liberation Army’s intelligence apparatus had links to organized crime and were engaging in reverse ethnic cleansing of Serbs and assassinations of their Kosovo Albanian political rivals. In Afghanistan, the Karzai government was delegitimized because of the “criminal patronage networks” that permeated his regime. In Iraq, the Maliki government hollowed out the Iraqi Army with ghost soldiers and replaced professional commanders with political loyalists. In all these cases, our efforts were thwarted by the kleptocractic nature of the national governments.

As we survey the international landscape today, there is a vast array of threats that are caused or exacerbated by kleptocracies, in addition to their obstruction of peace and stability operations. These include great-power competitors, nuclear aspirants like North Korea and Iran, terrorism, organized crime, state failure, and genocide.

How can these threats be neutralized? The center of gravity is their illicit revenue. In June 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice won a longstanding case against the government of Iran for evading U.S. economic sanctions. The Iranians set up an anonymous shell company in New York and purchased a Manhattan skyscraper. Tenants were paying rents to the shell company, unwittingly funding Iran’s nuclear program and whatever else that rogue nation chose to do.

Kleptocrats need not hide money in outlier nations with unstable economies. They can enjoy the benefits of strong investment returns and total secrecy here in the United States. This is because the U.S. remains the easiest place in the world to set up an anonymous shell company, according to a 2012 study (expanded two years later into a book) by researchers from the University of Texas and Brigham Young University. Impersonating would-be money launderers, corrupt officials, and terrorist financiers, the researchers requested services from thousands of corporate service providers that create and sell shell companies around the world. A typical response, from a corporate formation agent in Florida, was that “your started purpose could well be a front for funding terrorism…I wouldn’t even consider doing that for less [than $5,000] a month...”

Anonymous shell companies are the vehicle of choice for a wide variety of bad actors. Drug cartels and human trafficking operations have long understood the benefits of corporate secrecy to launder money. Terror groups have learned these lessons, and today illicit financing and evading sanctions are as much a part of their strategy as any bombing or attack. Corrupt leaders in nations around the world steal public funds to prop up their regimes, undermine democratic institutions and ideals, and create internal and regional instability. 

The solution is clear: change the rules that govern corporations so that their ownership is clear and available to law enforcement. Many of our allies have already taken the lead on this. In the U.S., one of the few policies preserved from the previous administration to the current one is a pilot program to collect the ownership information for certain high-end, cash transactions in real estate, an effort to stop Iranian-style money laundering through property.

But more must be done. Bipartisan bills are moving through Congress that would require companies to disclose their true owners at the time of formation and make that information available to police and prosecutors in the course of their investigations. Passing them would help strip a key tool from those who wish the United States harm.