Stopping the Spread of Weapons

What is a citizen concerned about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — and the possibility they will wind up in terrorists’ hands — to do?

Chief inspector David Kay has thrown up his hands after months of fruitless searches for Saddam Hussein's covert WMD stockpiles, publicly questioning the competence of U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies who said significant quantities of such weapons remained in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.

No less worrisome, other countries — from North Korea to Libya — are proving that they have successfully pursued this dangerous weaponry, in some cases exceeding what the intelligence services had thought possible.

Worse yet, Libya's recent disclosures have helped illuminate a secret, global pipeline for nuclear weapons-related designs and technology. It appears to have translated Chinese-enabled Pakistani WMD capabilities into assistance that could well be in the service not only of rogue states, but perhaps even organizations like al Qaeda.

Just when it appeared that neither intelligence operations nor inspections nor international arms and export control regimes can be relied upon to protect us from the nexus of terror and WMD proliferation, concerned citizens have received some important words of encouragement — from an unlikely source: CBS' popular TV news magazine, 60 Minutes.

On Sunday night, 60 Minutes called the attention of its millions of American viewers to a dirty little secret: “Just about everyone with a 401(k) pension plan or mutual fund has money invested in companies that are doing business in so-called rogue states. In other words, there are U.S. companies that are helping drive the economies of countries like Iran, Syria and Libya that have sponsored terrorists.”

Citing a powerful commercial data base developed by Conflict Securities Advisory Group (CSAG), the news program established that roughly 400 publicly traded companies — some headquartered in this country, many more overseas — are effectively enabling terrorism. One of those who told 60 Minutes he felt “anger” that investors were unwittingly helping our enemies was William Thompson, New York City's comptroller, a job that makes him responsible for $80 billion in city workers' pension funds.

Reporter Lesley Stahl spoke to Thompson about Iran, whose leaders he notes earn “most of their revenues through their oil industry.” She asked: “So what is the connection between that oil business and terrorism and weapons of mass destruction?” The Comptroller responded: “The Iranian Government is receiving dollars from it. And then turning around and exporting terrorism around the world. It benefits terrorism. At least that's our belief.”

With the help of CSAG's software, Thompson was able to determine that several prominent American companies held in his pension funds' portfolios had subsidiaries in countries like Iran. As 60 Minutes noted, he began to investigate their activities “at the request of New York City's police and firemen, who were outraged when they learned where their retirement money was going.” Thompson said, “The members of the Fire Department and the Police Department, after September 11th — given the fact that hundreds of them died in the World Trade Center as a result of a terrorist attack — had greater sensitivity than almost anybody. And they were the ones who kind of took the lead on this.”

American investors — both individual and institutional — have a further, compelling reason for following the lead of New York's heroic police and firefighters: CSAG's President, Roger Robinson (a colleague and friend from the Reagan White House) warns that investors could see share value seriously depressed by the negative publicity and popular hostility that ensues as companies' ties to terrorist regimes come to light.

Robinson told 60 Minutes, “We're certainly alerting investors to a genuine new risk category in the markets, every bit as legitimate as environmental risk was through Three Mile Island, Exxon Valdez and superfund legislation…. Investors, we think, have a right to know. Remember, this is their retirement dollars. They should have a sense [from] those who invest on their behalf: Are there genuine risks there?”

In short, Americans with funds in the stock market have an opportunity to do well while doing good. They can reduce material risk to their retirement funds while signaling to companies that seek to secure or retain their investments not to do business — either directly or through cut-outs — with terrorist-sponsoring and/or proliferating regimes.

As Comptroller Thompson put it: “Those countries depend on dollars from us to live, to do business also. If we… put pressure on the companies, and they can't do business there, and others become embarrassed in doing business or buying oil there, well, maybe we can help to force these countries to change their practices.”

Unfortunately, not all institutional investors have been as principled and responsible as William Thompson and Arizona Treasurer David Peterson, who was stonewalled by his state's public pension funds when he sought to compare their investments against Conflict Securities' data base.

The bottom line is clear, however. It is the right of American investors — and the responsibility of those who manage their funds — to know whether monies set aside for pensions, retirement savings, life insurance portfolios, etc., are being used in ways that could be both harmful to their country's security and to their financial futures. Armed with such information, each of us can, in effect, privatize and, thereby, greatly enhance counterproliferation efforts in this War on Terror.

Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. is the President of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for the Washington Times.

(This update courtesy of the Center for Security Policy.)

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