The government’s top tracker of terrorist assets got his start with an HLS fellowship
There’s a saying: Do what you love, and the money will follow. For Adam Szubin ’99, it’s a little different: With some early help from a Heyman Fellowship, he’s been able to do what he loves—and follow the money.
Earlier this year, when President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe crushed his political opposition and declared himself the winner of an election that official observers called a sham, an important part of the U.S. government’s response was to cut off revenue to Mugabe and his inner circle through sanctions. A key figure behind that policy was Szubin, the director of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which manages the country’s economic sanctions program against rogue countries, terrorist organizations, proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and narcotics traffickers.
Szubin never imagined he’d end up working in the Treasury Department, but it’s a job he finds “intellectually fascinating and personally rewarding,” he says. “I genuinely wouldn’t trade jobs with anyone on the planet.” Awarded a Heyman in 2000, Szubin started as a trial attorney in the civil division of the Justice Department, defending the government against lawsuits. “Part of the draw of working for the government is that as a young lawyer, you’re given a tremendous amount of responsibility,” he says. But after 9/11, he felt compelled to do even more, and ended up working for the Justice Department on two cases in which charities suspected of channeling money to Hamas and al-Qaida sued the government over the freezing of their assets. “That was the beginning of everything for me,” he says. For more than a year, Szubin worked intensively on the cases, both of which the government eventually won. Much of the evidence against the charities was classified, so Szubin spent hours at a time poring over material in a “sensitive compartmented information facility” with two locks, no windows or phone connections, and a special computer with no outside access.
Because of the expertise he gained from that experience, Szubin began attending meetings with officials in the CIA, the FBI and the Treasury Department, working to pinpoint financial targets in the terrorism world. That eventually led to his current job, which he started in 2006. He now manages an office of about 160, and implements more than two dozen sanctions programs—against countries like Sudan and Myanmar, against Iranian front companies trying to procure missile parts and against individuals known to be part of terrorist organizations. His work is aided by the fact that financial transactions often occur in U.S. dollars. A transfer of money between a company in China and one in Pakistan, for instance, might for a split second flow through the financial markets in New York, enabling the Treasury Department to identify the companies and freeze their assets.
For situations like the one in Zimbabwe, sanctions may be the most powerful tool in the U.S.’s arsenal. “Normally we use diplomacy and at the other end of the spectrum you have military intervention,” he says. “But what is there in between? When diplomacy fails, the main tool is economic or financial leverage, which hopefully can be used to promote good national security outcomes.”
Even though Szubin didn’t expect he’d end up in the Treasury Department, in a job where he’s not a practicing lawyer, he’s known since law school that he wanted to devote his career to public service, and the Heyman Fellowship was a helpful nudge along that path. “It made my first step all that much easier and more possible, and I remain very grateful to the fellowship not only for the assistance, but also for the continued mentorship opportunities it has given me, allowing me to be a part of a remarkable network of public servants.”