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Journalist and artists labeled as terrorists for creating comic book
January 22, 2013 8:22 AM   Subscribe

In 2010, journalist David Axe spent a month in the Congo reporting on the Lord's Resistance Army. When he returned, he wrote a book titled "Army of God: Joseph Kony's War in Central Africa", illustrated by Tim Hamilton and edited by Matt Bors. The book first appeared online, but the paperback rights were acquired by publisher Public Affairs, with plans to publish an expanded edition in 2013. The deal included an advance, which was wired to Hamilton's account. That's where the U.S. Treasury department comes in. Specifically, The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

Founded in 1950, OFAC enforced U.S. economic sanctions against embargoed nations such as Cuba and Iran. And 12 days after the 9/11 terror attacks, then-President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13224, authorizing OFAC to enforce “economic sanctions on persons who commit, threaten to commit, or support certain acts of terrorism.”

Prohibited recipients, called “Specially Designated Nationals” or SDNs, number in the thousands. “No U.S. person can engage in business with any individual or entity on the list,” Treasury warns. “If they do, they may face civil monetary or criminal penalties.”

In fact, automated software approved by the OFAC, does most of the work for the banks; flagging transactions and routing the funds into a "blocked account" that can only be accessed by the Treasury Department. Once funds have been diverted into this "special account" trying to clear the block becomes a Sisyphean task, with no clear way to contact anyone at OFAC.

False positives have been particularly problematic for charities and humanitarian groups. A report issued by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point says that terror-related counter-finance efforts “face a number of daunting policy trade-offs — personal integrity versus data access, financial integrity versus investor friendliness, due process versus being able to freeze very liquid assets, among others,". For that reason the money-intercept practice “seems unlikely to yield any dramatic achievements in the future,” the CTC concluded. In the meantime, the feds and the bank can, and do, take people’s money on the flimsiest of justifications.
posted by dejah420 (45 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Am I missing something here? Where is the information about Axe or Hamilton being specifically labeled a terrorist?
posted by spacediver at 8:34 AM on January 22, 2013


This post on his blog seems to have some details on the specific situation referred to in the title.
posted by history_denier at 8:49 AM on January 22, 2013


3rd link, spacediver.
posted by dejah420 at 8:50 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


ah! my bad, thank you :)
posted by spacediver at 8:52 AM on January 22, 2013


Third link contains the core of the story, but spacediver is right--nobody was "labeled a terrorist." Some funds were automatically withheld by a bank because of fears that the money might be aiding a known terrorist organization. That's a rather different issue.
posted by yoink at 8:53 AM on January 22, 2013


The claim seems to be buried just a little. The "Army of God: Joseph Kony's War in Central Africa" link is the claim.
An advance was seized in December because of what sounds like automatic software being stupid and flagging the book based on the title. It is not clear that Hamilton and/or Axe have actually been labeled as terrorists. The process is just over a month long so far, and as infuriating as it may be I don't think it (yet) rises to outrage-amoungst-other-people level quite yet.
posted by edgeways at 8:57 AM on January 22, 2013


There has got to be more to the story than this. There is no way the feds knew the title of the book from just a wire transfer. Where was the money being transferred to and from, for example? Who is on the list? The author, the editor, or the publisher?
posted by gjc at 8:57 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seems relevant to note that the issue has been resolved and the money released to Hamilton.
posted by lullaby at 8:58 AM on January 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


gjc, well if the money transfer was labeled anything like: Money for advance "Army of God: Joseph Kony's War in Central Africa" I could see why it would be flagged
posted by edgeways at 8:59 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm trying to read more from December and January, but the blog home page doesn't have links to older material at the bottom. Their archives links are broken (each month is supposed to have many entries, but clicking on that month only displays one entry for that month -- and the counts for January vary between the home page and the December 21 entry). Were there any updates on this after December 21?

spacediver, the December 21 entry says this:
Hamilton’s money was seized early in December 2012 when his agent attempted to wire the advance payment for the extra chapters that the artist illustrated for the graphic collection. When Hamilton’s agent contacted the bank to find out more, he was told that the party holding the funds was the federal wire fraud unit, which suspected that the creators were laundering funds for a terrorist organization.

The federal banking authority, which monitors every wire, foreign and domestic, apparently seized the funds due to the title of the book, ARMY OF GOD, which threw up a red flag.

At the time of this release, the funds have not been released to Hamilton or his agent despite the involvement of lawyers. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has also been contacted and apprised of the situation.
I'm guessing that they don't want to release any correspondence between their lawyers and OFAC. Would OFAC have issued a statement to the writer and artist, their agent, or their bank that they would be free to publicize? I know that automated software does the work, but wouldn't the bank, at least, have received some notice?

The January 17 list of SDNs is here, but I don't see Axe of Hamilton listed.
posted by maudlin at 9:00 AM on January 22, 2013


thanks, lullaby. That blog post was very informative.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:00 AM on January 22, 2013


Army of God is a US domestic terrorist group that attacks clinics and doctors.

False positives are never a problem once you've discarded the presumption of innocence. The designers of auto-denunciation software might regard this as a feature, not a bug, since it will increase the number of successful interceptions of terrorist funds transfers.
posted by warbaby at 9:02 AM on January 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


Seems relevant to note that the issue has been resolved and the money released to Hamilton.

So the payment is intercepted in "early December" and gets cleared by New Year's. Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmares ain't what they used to be.
posted by yoink at 9:02 AM on January 22, 2013 [9 favorites]


Thanks, lullaby. URL subtraction finally gave me a different, incomplete subset of January 2013 posts, but the January archive link just listed the January 2 entry.

If these guys want people to know their full story, they need to get someone in to fix up their very broken blog.
posted by maudlin at 9:07 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perhaps I phrased the post incorrectly, but my bigger point was that there is this automated software, and no good way to protest if you get caught in it. Note that David said it wasn't his attorneys that got the money released, it was that agents in other departments worked behind the scenes to free the advance. Axe's story was an illustration of a bigger modality.
posted by dejah420 at 9:07 AM on January 22, 2013


maudlin: “The January 17 list of SDNs is here, but I don't see Axe of Hamilton listed.”

But both "KONY, JOSEPH" and "ARMY OF GOD" are listed.
posted by koeselitz at 9:07 AM on January 22, 2013


Hit post too soon, meant to add that I think that the post title should have been a better lede.
posted by dejah420 at 9:08 AM on January 22, 2013


Ah, but they weren't listed as terrorists (or SDNs). That was the claim I was looking for.
posted by maudlin at 9:08 AM on January 22, 2013


OFAC is some serious shit. Getting caught in that net means that it's impossible to carry on life as a normal citizen of the US. You can't open any new bank accounts, the ones you have will be flagged and frozen, no credit cards or paypal or anything else. All new financial accounts are run through OFAC, and it's a hard stop if you show up. Getting it sorted can sometimes be quite difficult, so I hope the comments above about it being resolved are correct. Otherwise, your life gets relegated to the gray market. It's a prison sentence of sorts - how do you get paid? How do you hold down a normal job? Even without a trial, you've been excluded and expelled from normal life. It's a terrible fate.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:14 AM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


When Voluntary Disclosure Isn't A Voluntary Disclosure
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:14 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know, this is unfortunate, and it really sounds like OFAC needs to have a transparent review & appeals process, but the guy did get his money back, and he was never actually labeled a terrorist. Certainly we have to do something about abortion clinic bombers like the Army of God, and freezing assets sounds like a better program than drone strikes.
posted by echo target at 9:14 AM on January 22, 2013


maudlin: “Ah, but they weren't listed as terrorists (or SDNs). That was the claim I was looking for.”

Huh. Did anyone claim they were identified as SDNs? I thought the claim was that they were suspected (by an automated keyword search, granted) of "engaging in business with" SDNs.
posted by koeselitz at 9:15 AM on January 22, 2013


False positives are never a problem once you've discarded the presumption of innocence.

"Discarded the presumption of innocence" is pretty strong language to describe what happened here. No doubt there is a point where a delay in the transfer of funds becomes abusive, amounting to a kind of punishment without trial, but three weeks (over the Christmas period, what's more) surely isn't that point. You might as well say that the fact that US Customs will hold and inspect stuff that you ship into the country without proving beforehand that it's either an illegal shipment or that you will owe duty on it is "discarding the presumption of innocence." It's certainly an inconvenience to have to drive out to the US Customs office at an airport or a port to collect your stuff, but it's hardly the death knell of liberty.

I imagine that there have been cases where the OFAC have screwed up worse than this--this one would seem to have looked FPP worthy simply because of the amusing disproportion between "OMG Terrorism!" and "Oh ha ha, it's a comic book!"--but it wasn't a good case to choose to illustrate the central thesis--that there is something inherently abusive about the way OFAC operates.
posted by yoink at 9:15 AM on January 22, 2013 [5 favorites]



So the payment is intercepted in "early December" and gets cleared by New Year's. Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmares ain't what they used to be.

It helps if the project you are working is essentially sponsored by US Special Forces:
“In the past banks have encountered false positives of names or identifiers of Specially Designated Nationals,” Sullivan says. “In most cases the bank will complete its review, confirm the false positive and complete the processing of the payment in a prompt manner.”

Not in our case. The block on our funds was still in place weeks later. A couple federal agents — not OFAC employees — got in touch with me, expressing their alarm over the block on our funds and volunteering to pull whatever levers they could to expedite some kind of resolution. Whether through their action or the bank’s processes, sometime around the new year the funds were released. I haven’t heard a full explanation yet for what went wrong and how it got resolved.
I don't imagine your average islamic charity has friendly "US agents" as guardian angels.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:21 AM on January 22, 2013


gjc, well if the money transfer was labeled anything like: Money for advance "Army of God: Joseph Kony's War in Central Africa" I could see why it would be flagged

Do wire transfers have that kind of information? I guess I just assumed they were no more than an electronic version of "transfer X dollars from bank+account#+person to bank+account#+person".
posted by gjc at 9:30 AM on January 22, 2013


gjc, well if the money transfer was labeled anything like: Money for advance "Army of God: Joseph Kony's War in Central Africa" I could see why it would be flagged


Is that a thing? I mean, is Kony signing checks and putting "village raid bonus" in the memo line?


Cover all your bases, I suppose.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 9:35 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Did anyone claim they were identified as SDNs?

1. This post's title: "Journalist and artists labeled as terrorists for creating comic book".
2. The December 21 post title: "My New Graphic Novel is a … Terrorist Organization?"
3. First para of the press release: "Tim Hamilton, artist of the Eisner-nominated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, had his advance payment for the upcoming graphic novel ARMY OF GOD, a non-fiction telling of Joseph Kony’s activities in the Congo, seized by the OFAC under suspicion that the money was being laundering [sic] for a terrorist organization."

So no explicit labelling as SDNs (jargon most of us have never heard before today), two "terrorist" labels, and a claim that OFAC saw them as working with terrorists to launder their money, not that they were foolishly or cluelessly associating with terrorists.

Also: "A couple federal agents — not OFAC employees — got in touch with me, expressing their alarm over the block on our funds and volunteering to pull whatever levers they could to expedite some kind of resolution." Agents from what office? How did they find out about this? Why did they seek out Axe and Hamilton? Why were they "alarmed"?

Don't get me wrong. The links dejah420 included about OFAC and SDNs are disturbing, and that CTC report is definitely worth reading. I'd really like to hear more about people's experiences with OFAC, but I don't think this blog is the most solid source around.
posted by maudlin at 9:37 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Did anyone claim they were identified as SDNs?

No, but the post title -- "Journalist and artists labeled as terrorists for creating comic book" -- could be read (and was read) as implying they were. The third link states that "the feds believe Tim and I are terror financiers," and not 'are terrorists,' but given that it also doesn't mention the SDN list at all by name you could charitably read it as the authors themselves being labeled as terrorists. From the comments on that blog posts, there are several people who read it as the authors being labeled as a terrorist organization.

The distinction matters a bit since if they were on the SDN list, that would make the false positive far, far more problematic: every financial transaction would be blocked (as alluded to upthread), rather than just the book advance.
posted by cjelli at 9:38 AM on January 22, 2013


Is that a thing? I mean, is Kony signing checks and putting "village raid bonus" in the memo line?

Nobody thought they were part of Kony's group. "Army of God" was flagged because it's the name of a Christian terrorist organization in the United States.
posted by lullaby at 9:39 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


This passage highlights the core problem with lack of transparency:

...a couple federal agents — not OFAC employees — got in touch with me, expressing their alarm over the block on our funds and volunteering to pull whatever levers they could to expedite some kind of resolution. Whether through their action or the bank’s processes, sometime around the new year the funds were released. I haven’t heard a full explanation yet for what went wrong and how it got resolved.

I am willing to bet a large sum of money that he will never get a satisfactory accounting. He will likely never know if his account was released through the extra-normal efforts of some well-connected (and well-intentioned) agents, or through a normailized, transparent review. That's important because if the only justice is a special one-off deal you can get by being friends with the right people, that's really no justice at all.
posted by bonehead at 9:44 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


maudlin: “I'd really like to hear more about people's experiences with OFAC, but I don't think this blog is the most solid source around.”

Me too. And here's an interesting detail about OFAC's position within the government, from the ACLU:
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) is responsible for implementing the government’s activities with regard to freezing foreign assets belonging to certain designated individuals. While these measures are an important part of a variety of U.S. sanctions regimes, they create large potential for abuse. In particular, OFAC claims the power to prevent any designated person – including U.S. citizens – from retaining a lawyer without first obtaining a license from the government.
OFAC has the power to prevent US citizens from retaining legal counsel? Wow. That's... well, it's pretty huge, is what it is. And a bit scary.
posted by koeselitz at 9:48 AM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


gjc, well if the money transfer was labeled anything like: Money for advance "Army of God: Joseph Kony's War in Central Africa" I could see why it would be flagged

Do wire transfers have that kind of information?
Yes, yes, they do.

In my day job I'm actually doing software testing for SEPA related projects (SEPA being the new European money transfer standard); the example above would be transmitted as "unstructured remittance information" and kept intact througout the chain of banks your credit transfer would move through.

Each bank, not just American banks, checks this field (and others) for indications that a cross border transfer might be related to terrorist purposes; obviously US banks also check domestic payments.

In each case the first step is automated, cross checking relevant fields to lists of code words and such to flag suspicious transfers, after which somebody has to look at it to see if it's a false positive or not; there are of course a lot more false positives than true negatives. Over here this process should take no more than a day or two at most to complete , with only true positives being refused clearance and brought to the attention of law enforcement.

Please note that for any bank doing business in or with the US, this means also denying quite legal transactions to and from countries the US has a hate-on against: Cuba, Iran, Syria, Burma etc.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:51 AM on January 22, 2013


OFAC has the power to prevent US citizens from retaining legal counsel? Wow. That's... well, it's pretty huge, is what it is. And a bit scary.

It's true that this is a very difficult area, but it's not quite as straightforwardly eeeeevil as you imply. Obviously if your object is to freeze the funds of bad actors (and lets stipulate that we're not talking solely about innocent cartoonists, journalists and charities here, and that many of the accounts and transactions being frozen are ones we should be very glad to see frozen) you can't give them a trivially easy workaround in the form of "payment for legal representation." That is, we can't say "oh, it's legal for any organization whatsoever to pay anybody any amount of money so long as they say the magic words 'this payment is for legal representation.'" That is the purpose of the "license" that the govt. provides to the lawyer retained by the person whose funds have been frozen--the lawyer must establish that they are in fact a lawyer doing real legal work.

It is, moreover, the Treasury's argument that they have a general license in place permitting pro bono work of the kind done by the ACLU, and that the ACLU's suit (which they won a couple of years back now) was a piece of unnecessary grandstanding.

These are, in any case, complex problems not, I think, much clarified by odd outlier cases like the one in the FPP.
posted by yoink at 11:00 AM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


It sounds like we can be thankful for that "unnecessary grandstanding" because it forced the OFAC to end its blanket assertion that it may withhold the right of an American citizen to retain a lawyer. The fact that the case actually went to trial before the OFAC relented indicates to me that it wasn't very unnecessary at all. And while it may serve the government to encourage the perception that the case of Anwar Al-Awlaki is merely an outlying case, and that it's not an important one because he was not among the "innocent cartoonists, journalists and charities" you mention, I'm not sure that's actually the case. It seems like a relatively important case to me.
posted by koeselitz at 12:21 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the press release:
Brooklyn, NY — Tim Hamilton, artist of the Eisner-nominated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, had his advance payment for the upcoming graphic novel ARMY OF GOD, a non-fiction telling of Joseph Kony’s activities in the Congo, seized by the OFAC under suspicion that the money was being laundering for a terrorist organization.


Since when is a graphic novel non-fiction? Is there something I am not understanding about graphic novels?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 1:08 PM on January 22, 2013


It sounds like we can be thankful for that "unnecessary grandstanding" because it forced the OFAC to end its blanket assertion that it may withhold the right of an American citizen to retain a lawyer.

From my reading of the link I posted (and other material I've been able to find on this matter), OFAC hasn't reversed itself on this point at all. All they did was grant the ACLU a specific license, while arguing at the same time that the court action was unnecessary. They may well be lying--I don't know. In order to demonstrate that they were lying you'd need to find a large number of cases where licenses of this kind were unforthcoming in a reasonable timeframe.

it may serve the government to encourage the perception that the case of Anwar Al-Awlaki is merely an outlying case, and that it's not an important one because he was not among the "innocent cartoonists, journalists and charities" you mention, I'm not sure that's actually the case

Um, who on earth thinks the Anwar Al-Awlaki case is "not an important one"? I'm saying the David Axe case (you know, "the one in the FPP") is a trivial one and does not help us understand the clearly important and complex issues raised by the Al-Awlaki case and others like it.
posted by yoink at 1:44 PM on January 22, 2013


Secret Life; "graphic novel" is a genre whereby a story is told with pictures and text, rather than just pictures. Much like a photography book with captions can tell a story. For example:

Autobiographies

Or the 9/11 Report, the graphical adaption.

Or
Footnotes in Gaza...and tons of others.

Check out: Comic Books as Journalism: 10 Masterpieces of Graphic Nonfiction

So, yes...I would say there *is* something you're not getting about graphic novels.
posted by dejah420 at 1:46 PM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Since when is a graphic novel non-fiction? Is there something I am not understanding about graphic novels?

Sneaks up behind SLoG with a rolled-up copy of American Splendor...
posted by Strange Interlude at 1:47 PM on January 22, 2013


So why don't they call them graphic books? Using the word novel is misleading.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 1:52 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


A graphic book would be a a book with especially lurid descriptions. Yeah, it's weird that 'graphic novel' is used to describe nonfiction as well as fiction, but it's the word we've got. "Sequential art intended for adults" isn't quite pithy enough.
posted by echo target at 2:01 PM on January 22, 2013


We could just call them "reads". That would be much simpler, though considerably more misogynistic, I guess.
posted by bonehead at 2:09 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


My library has a section for graphic novels... fiction and non-fiction. Granted the non-fiction is a lot smaller but a few notable non fiction titles I know of and I'm hardly a genera-a-phile:

Maus is considered non fiction
Persepolis
A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge
The 14th Dali Lama
The Imposters' Daughter
NonNonBa
Are You My Mother?
posted by edgeways at 2:43 PM on January 22, 2013


This is why I won't give donations to any charity that sounds even vaguely Islamic or middle eastern. You never know what charity is going to be accused of giving aid towards terrorists.

I also won't give donations to groups working for peace in the middle east.
posted by el io at 3:14 PM on January 22, 2013


Comic books.
posted by koeselitz at 3:25 PM on January 22, 2013


This one doesn't look particularly funny either.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:34 PM on January 22, 2013


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