Biden places anti-corruption effort at heart of overseas coverage, with crypto, cyber focus

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the April jobs report from the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., May 7, 2021.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is placing global anti-corruption efforts at the center of U.S. foreign policy, issuing a new directive to federal agencies to prioritize efforts to identify and tackle corruption.

The instructions came in the form of a National Security Study Memorandum released Thursday, the first of Biden’s presidency. The memo formally establishes the fight against corruption as a core national security interest of the United States. 

The memo is important because it publicly notifies federal agencies that they need to “up their anti-corruption game,” said an administration official, speaking to reporters on background about the directive.

The memo directs a 200-day interagency review of how to improve anti-corruption measures, culminating in a report and recommendations to the president.

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The official said major parts of the directive will be focused on financial crimes, including steps to modernize existing anti-corruption laws to confront cryptocurrencies and cybercrime.

“We are looking at crypto as a means of illicit finance,” the official said, “but by no means are these new steps limited to new technologies like crypto.”

The official also said the effort would likely involve updates to the Bank Secrecy Act, the primary means by which law enforcement can track how money moves through financial institutions.

“We’ll be looking for ideas of how to modernize these systems to respond to new technologies,” the official said. The memo does not name individual countries, specific currencies or particular kinds of assets.

According to the memo, the federal government will also “robustly” implement new rules established in January that require American companies to report their beneficial owner or owners to the Treasury Department. This is part of an effort aimed at “reducing offshore financial secrecy; improving information sharing; and, as necessary, identifying the need for new reforms.”

The memo also identifies the need to address strategic corruption by foreign entities and governments “and their domestic collaborators” in part by “closing loopholes exploited by these actors to interfere in democratic processes in the United States and abroad.”

This is a thinly veiled reference to efforts by Russia, Iran and other adversaries in recent years to exploit loopholes in the laws that govern foreign lobbying and political activities, in order to fund disinformation campaigns and influence U.S. elections.

The anti-corruption fight is part of a broader shift underway towards a new “foreign policy for the middle class.” The strategy, devised in part by Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan, emphasizes how foreign policy and domestic policy can be integrated into a new middle ground between the traditional conservative and liberal approaches to global affairs.

Foreign policy for the middle class aims to ensure that globalization, trade, human rights and military might are all harnessed for the benefit of working Americans, not solely for billionaires and multinational corporations, but not for abstract ideological reasons, either.

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