American National Security: The Threat of Kleptocracy and Transnational Organized Crime

9 mins read

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Today the most pervasive threats to our national security go unnoticed and undefined. They are not traditional threats. Rarely do we see or read in our media anymore stories about foreign territorial expansion. Islamic terrorism is rarely cited as a major threat although it certainly has not disappeared. We are winding down our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as the country grows wary of America’s forever wars. Rhetoric between China and the U.S. regarding trade talks and COVID-19 responsibility has never escalated to anything more than verbal posturing.

I would argue that America’s most pressing enemy is not a country which hopes to expand its territory. It’s not an ideology, like Fundamentalist Islam or Communism. This enemy is far more elusive, does not limit itself to national borders, and is widely defused across countless governmental entities, including our own.

Then-FBI director Robert Mueller described this enemy in a 2011 speech to the Citizens Crime Commission as far reaching, well-coordinated and diverse. Its network includes crime bosses, former and current government officials and military, terrorists and entrepreneurs, drug dealers, sex traffickers and real estate moguls. What unifies this network is greed and the desire to obtain wealth and power by any means necessary.

According to Mueller,

These groups may infiltrate our businesses. They may provide logistical support to hostile foreign powers. They may try to manipulate those at the highest levels of government. Indeed, these so-called ‘iron triangles’ of organized criminals, corrupt government officials, and business leaders pose a significant national security threat.”

Hidden from the average American is the underlying crime and corruption that permeates our political process. What is not so hidden are the environments in which this crime thrives. These transnational crime syndicates flourish under autocratic rule and are most evident in countries where democratic principles are undermined or absent, whose leaders are no longer held accountable and who are supported by crime syndicates that also are not held accountable.

Leaders of these kleptocratic countries are often interconnected and share a common purpose. They use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth and political power. Alliances between kleptocratic leaders are arranged, not in the interests of their citizens, but in the interests of leaders’ personal power and supportive crime syndicates.

International webs are created between such alliances that allow criminals to launder their wealth. They also infuse their influence and corruption into even democratic countries that profess to honor “the rule of law.”

This article from 2016 offers a good explanation:

The purchase of multimillion dollar properties, the arrangement of opaque offshore financial instruments, and the laundering of a kleptocrat’s public image, do not happen by accident or on its own. Professional intermediaries in the established democracies are critical links for venal kleptocrats, who seek to move ill-gotten gains from authoritarian systems into the democracies and the international finance system, where the rule of law offers their ill-gotten wealth a safe and respectable haven.”

World Affairs

Kleptocracies and emerging kleptocracies not only export criminal bounty, they also export and support common practices. They are heavy handed in their suppression of dissent. As an example, in the United States, our president and conservative media have labeled much of the press as “enemy of the people.”

Further, whistleblowers, investigative journalists and others who seek to expose corrupt practices become targets of law enforcement and are treated as enemies of the state. Whistleblowers who bring to light illegal or unethical acts occurring in the White House often find their reputations and careers destroyed. Those caught leaking information to the press in order to enlighten the public about threats from other kleptocratic governments, such as Russia, find themselves jailed. Watchdog oversight such as the Office of Inspectors General becomes dismantled and its officers fired without explanation. U.S. attorneys are fired when they investigate cases related to associates of the president and his inner circle.

Kleptocracies commonly avoid responsibility for corruption by diverting their citizens’ attention toward blame on outside “enemies.” Putin’s most effective means of acquiring power was funneling his country’s anger and frustration at Chechnya when he allegedly bombed his own citizens and blamed it on Chechnyan Muslims.

Similarly, Trump holds many groups responsible for the social, economic and political “decay” of America. Examples of this rhetoric include:

Kleptocrats assault the truth. Traditional sources for information are delegitimized, objective and empirical observation are discounted, and individual faculties for critical thinking are assailed. Only in an environment where objective truth is consistently undermined can lack of accountability and criminal activity flourish and rule of law be ignored.

Finally, kleptocratic leaders need loyalty. In Trump’s world, those people who have not remained loyal have paid a heavy price. There are countless examples of officials and colleagues who have been punished: James Comey was fired and later investigated by DOJ; Jeff Sessions was fired and then not supported in his campaign for Senate; Michael Cohen was jailed and smeared; John Bolton was sued and threatened with imprisonment. The list goes on and on. But for those who remain loyal, the benefits can be grand. For Mike Pompeo, Wilbur Ross, Betsy DeVos, the Trump family, Steve Mnuchin, Ben Carson, Elaine Chao and so many more, loyalty to Trump has been very lucrative.

Because international crime embedded in government is such an elusive enemy, it is not an easy one to combat – and certainly impossible to combat if our democratic institutions and principles are destroyed. I believe the United States is in a stronger position to combat this autocratic kleptocratic corruption due to our long history with democracy. We have stronger foundations than most countries, although our democracy has never equally benefited all. Nonetheless, we are at a precipice, and if we are not careful, this growing authoritative movement will erode what limited democracy we have, accelerate income inequality, and place nearly all political and economic power in the hands of a few. The rest of us will be left poorer, voiceless and captive to the whims of non-elected leaders. It is more than urgent now that we exercise the voice we have before it is too late.

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