By James Hellegaard
After 35 years in the U.S. State Department, Victor Comras (JD 66) had decided to retire. He had been a witness to history, experiencing his share of tremendous satisfaction as well as terrible frustration. The time had come, he thought, to call it a career.
It was August 2001.
A month later, Comras was in Washington, D.C., and witnessed the horrors of Sept. 11th unfold on television.
So much for retirement.
The following spring, he was called by the United Nations and was subsequently appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan to serve as one of five international monitors working under Security Council Resolution 1267 to see what countries were actually doing to impose U.N. Security Council measures against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It was just one of the post-9/11 actions put in place as part of a new U.N. sanctions program against Al-Qaeda.
Armed with the knowledge and experience developed over four decades of service to his country, Comras continues to try to defeat an enemy that is ever more difficult to track. “We are facing increasing challenges,” says Comras, “and when it comes to the issue of terrorism and terrorism financing, we have kind of a simplistic view of that world.”
Al-Qaeda as the world knew it five years ago has changed, fracturing into a thousand different kinds of cells. It’s something more than was initially thought, he says.
“Its theology, if I can use that word, or philosophy or approach has been taken up by so many fundamentalist Islamist groups,” says Comras, who is now “semi-retired,” working as an attorney with the Eren law firm in Washington, D.C., and as an independent consultant.
Efforts to stop Al-Qaeda and those who help fund it are complicated by a lack of consensus on the definition of terrorism and who are terrorists, Comras says. For example, for most Americans it is very clear that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which have gained some prominence in the Middle East conflict, are terrorist groups. “But that view is still not shared by a good part of the world, including many of our European friends,” he says. “So it’s hard to deal with it.”
Still, a great number of steps have been taken to deal with terrorism financing, money laundering, and other criminal activity related to international financing.
“We’ve come a heck of a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” Comras says. “We’ve done a good job of putting in place structures to deal with terrorism financing and other illegal financial activity. But the international community still doesn’t have a credible strategy to deal with terrorism financing.”
Comras, meanwhile, has gone on the offensive through his computer keyboard, banging out articles on various international issues for The Washington Post, The Financial Times, and other publications, as well as a chapter on Al-Qaeda financing for a book being published this fall. He has been concentrating some of his writing efforts on the serious problems that remain in the international arena in dealing with the terrorism financing issues and the failure to put the major financiers out of business. In his June 2005 op-ed in The Washington Post, “Following Terrorists’ Money,” Comras wrote that there was reason to question the Bush administration’s assertions that Al-Qaeda was weakened and was forced to cut its expenditures.
“While the fight against terrorism has benefited from increased intelligence, this effort has not been enough to cut off Al-Qaeda’s financing or to put its financial supporters out of business,” he wrote. “Turning intelligence into actionable evidence for civil designation or criminal prosecutions has proved exceedingly difficult. There are heavy constraints on sharing intelligence and, even when it is shared with investigators, special efforts are required to come up with open-source evidence that can confirm the intelligence and stand up in court.”
In June 2006, a series of articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times revealed a secret Bush administration program, initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, allowed counter terrorism officials to gain access to financial records from a vast international database and examine banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States. The articles on the Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) drew harsh criticism from Republicans and conservatives, including The Weekly Standard, which called The New York Times “a national security threat.”
“I was surprised that everybody was so surprised,” says Comras, who expressed his opinion in numerous articles, including those he posted on The Counterterrorism Blog (http:// counterterrorismblog.org/). “I guess I was caught off guard by the impact the story had both on the public as well as on the administration because, for us dealing with the issue of terrorism financing and the international efforts against it, these kinds of things were not a surprise. It was a no-brainer to us that we would be looking closely at SWIFT and at the other international transfer mechanisms and houses that deal with terrorism financing.”
Comras cut his teeth on some of the key issues of our time, including strategic export control policies during the height of the Cold War, and eventually oversaw the mission to open the first U.S. Embassy in Macedonia. Perhaps the crowning achievement of his career came in the 1990s when he helped bring down Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic during the Kosovo War.
Milosevic, one of the key figures in the Yugoslav wars during the 1990s and Kosovo War in 1999, was indicted in May 1999 by the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for crimes against humanity in Kosovo. In the wake of demonstrations following the disputed presidential election of October 2000, he conceded defeat and resigned, and less than a year later was extradited to stand trial in The Hague.
“I was asked by Secretary of State Madeline Albright to put together an international sanctions program,” he recalls. “At this time we didn’t have a U.N. resolution working with our European allies that could have an impact on Serbia and help to convince the Serbian people they needed to get rid of Slobo, and at the same time take steps that could weaken financially those key support elements that sustained Slobo in power. We were effective and eventually Slobodan Milosevic was overturned and was turned over to The Hague.”
It stands out as one of the high points in Comras’ career. Milosevic, who suffered from chronic ailments, died in March 2006 of a heart attack before his trial had concluded.
“One never hopes for those kinds of things to happen to anyone, but it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” Comras says sarcastically about Milosevic’s death. “I’ll leave to his maker any final judgments about his actions during his lifetime, but if any one man could be held responsible for the tragedies that occurred in the Balkans and particularly in the break up of Yugoslavia, I think he would stand up as the man most responsible.”
One colleague who worked with Comras during that time was Leon Fuerth, who first met Comras in the early days of the Clinton administration when he was asked by the White House to take over general responsibility for enforcement of economic sanctions against Serbia. Comras, who was directing an interagency sanctions team operating out of the State Department, had already established mechanisms for enforcement in the U.S. government and internationally, Fuerth says, but the system needed a link to the White House to have the necessary political impact.
“Victor was a master of Washington and international maneuvers — a tremendously fertile source of new ideas, and endlessly energetic,” recalls Fuerth, a former national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore and now a research professor of international affairs at the Elliot School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. “Together, this team turned sanctions into a force that strongly influenced Milosevic to search for ways to come to terms with demands for an end to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. It took force in the end, but we know the sanctions had a tremendous impact on his will to resist.”
Out of these daily contacts, the two men developed a friendship that has survived the end of the Clinton administration and Comras’ retirement from the Foreign Service, Fuerth says. “Victor was passionate about his work,” Fuerth says. “His approach to it proceeded from a deep moral determination to make sure ethnic cleansing would not succeed. This continued during his work at the U.N. on sanctions enforcement. He could be bureaucratically artful, but he could always be counted upon to tell truth to power. Personally very modest, he was impossible to intimidate when it came to his mission.”
Still, Comras’ career has not been without its share of disappointment. After initially making plans to retire in early 2001, Comras put those plans on hold when the Bush administration asked him to stay on to see what could be done to make sanctions on Iraq more effective. He led a team that recommended steps be taken to “put in place a more effective sanctions regime, to modernize it, and to target it.” It would become, Comras says, “a very frustrating experience.”
“I think at that time the administration simply lost interest in what we were trying to do,” says Comras, who reflected on the experience in a Washington Post editorial. “At the time I suggested we were leaving ourselves no option but going to war, and I guess I was more prophetic than I would have ever wished to be. And of course, we all have seen what has transpired since. I’m no friend of Saddam Hussein or his regime. I think that getting rid of Saddam was and should have been one of our objectives. But I personally believe we went about it in a very clumsy manner.”
Those who know Comras are familiar with his degree of determination in doing things right. Stephen Powell, director of the International Trade Law Program at the Levin College of Law, has been friends with Comras since their days as UF Law students in the mid-1960s. He isn’t surprised at the impact Comras has had on U.S. foreign policy in the area of economic sanctions. Powell remembers Comras as someone who “never did anything halfway,” whether it was his law studies or playing handball at the courts that used to stand north of Florida Field.
“His commitment to justice and fair dealing was always strong,” Powell says of his old law school study partner. “Endlessly curious, he could be exasperating in his ‘what if’ scenarios about Vietnam, other world issues, or the rule against perpetuities. The conversation, whether with me or a professor in class, couldn’t end until we had come up with a rational explanation or solution.”
Comras says his interest in joining the Foreign Service stretches back almost as far as he can remember. From the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, where he earned his undergraduate degree in international affairs, to law school at UF, and onto a professional life that has taken him to virtually every corner of the globe, including Africa and Europe, his path has always been interesting.
“I have had a fascinating and varied career,” he says. “I used to tell some of my students when I taught for a while as a diplomat-in-residence that it gave me an opportunity to have a front row on history. I have found my career in the state department over 35 years to be very fulfilling and can look back and say I enjoyed it and was glad that I had that opportunity to serve.”