Meet David Cohen: The Jewish ‘sanctions guru’ appointed deputy chief of the CIA

Cohen is the first Jew to be appointed to such a senior position in the US intelligence agency; one of his key tasks will be to “follow the money” of ISIS terrorists.

David Cohen (photo credit: REUTERS)
David Cohen
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While all eyes in the world were on Paris following the terror attacks last week, and in Israel people were following the huge winter storm that hit the country, US President Barack Obama announced the appointment of David Cohen to be the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. This is the most senior appointment of a Jew in the history of the CIA, which has been a WASP stronghold since it was founded. Just in the last decade-and-a-half individuals from minority groups in the US have begun to obtain middle and high level positions at the agency.  The number of Jews on staff at the CIA has been, and remains, relatively few. In the past, the CIA representative in Israel was Jewish. Cohen is now the second most important Jewish figure in the Obama administration following the United States Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, who he worked under.

Cohen will replace Avril Haines who was the first woman to ever hold the office of deputy director. Haines will join the White House as Obama's deputy national security adviser.

Cohen's appointment, who has no experience in an intelligence organization, also signifies the direction in which the CIA and other Western organizations, including Israeli intelligence, are headed in the face of new challenges. One challenge is summed up by the catchphrase "follow the money." Cohen's appointment is good news for Israeli intelligence units that tracks terror financing and that follows Iranian attempts to circumvent the sanctions regime. Cohen has visited Israel a number of times to discuss these issues with intelligence personnel who also met with him in Washington.

Cohen served in his prior position at the Treasury for the past three-and-a-half years and was responsible for overseeing the US sanctions regime against Iran in order to stop its nuclear arms program.

Cohen, 51, is married, has two children and is the son of a doctor. Raised in Boston, he does not give special mention to his Jewish background in interviews, seemingly in order not to be labeled by the Jewish community as "one of our own." He studied at Cornell and at Yale, where he completed his law degree and researched nuclear management. He served as a law clerk to a United States District Judge for the District of Maryland following which he joined the ranks of a law firm specializing in white collar crime. After nine years he joined the US Department of the Treasury where he has passed most of his professional career. 

At the start of his career at the Treasury, Cohen was a legal advisor who was involved during the administration of then President George W. Bush with the drafting of the USA Patriot Act of 2001 that limited civil rights in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks. 

After he was appointed under-secretary at the Department of the Treasury, Cohen was involved primarily in the issues of terror-financing and the sanctions against Iran. His firm positions on these issues earned him the nickname, "the sanctions guru." Cohen was exposed to the US intelligence community and to those of US allies including Israel during this role. During his contact with Israeli intelligence officials he helped the Israel Security Agency in its efforts to stop the flow of money to Hamas, but especially in its efforts to follow the financing of Hezbollah and Iranian efforts to evade the economic sanctions against it.

"Israel is an important partner in the West in the fields of tracking terror financing and the effort to stop the financing of Iran's military nuclear program, so David knows the Israelis well," a former senior US official told The Jerusalem Post this week.

Recently Cohen has placed an emphasis on the effort to dry up funding sources of Islamic State. 

"The financing of ISIS presents a challenge for us that is different than ones we have faced in the past. It has accumulated a large amount of capital, unprecedented in its speed, and its sources of funding are different from most of the other terror groups in the world," Cohen said in a speech three months ago. 

"In contrast to al-Qaida for example, only a small amount of ISIS funds come from donors with deep pockets, so the funds are not dependent on international money transfers. Instead, ISIS accumulated its wealth from criminal and terror activities," Cohen said, likely in reference to ISIS gains from ransom payouts and revenues from oil.  

Assuming the West reaches a deal with Iran this year that curbs Iran's suspected nuclear arms ambitions, in exchange for the removal of the sanctions regime, the greatest challenge facing David Cohen in his new role as deputy director of the CIA will be tracking the financing of the Islamic State.  

Yossi Melman is an Israeli journalist and writer who specializes in security and intelligence affairs.  He is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars.
Visit Yossi Melman's blog:
Translated by Nathan Wise