Unfinished Business

For 65 years, Japanese corporations have escaped responsibility for abusing American POWs during World War II.

Lester Tenney entered World War II as a strapping 21-year-old, weight 180 pounds. By the time he emerged from Japanese captivity in 1945, he was a shattered, emaciated cripple. His left arm and shoulder were partly paralyzed due to an accident in a coal mine where he'd been sent as a slave laborer. His overseers there -- civilian employees of the Mitsui Corp., not members of the Imperial Army -- had knocked out his teeth in repeated beatings with hammers and pickaxes. At war's end, he weighed in at 98 pounds. It took him a year in U.S. Army hospitals to regain something like a semblance of his old well-being.

Sixty-five years later, Tenney and his fellow ex-prisoners of war (POWs) -- the rapidly diminishing group of those who remain alive, that is -- are still awaiting the full fruits of victory. The Japanese companies that once abused Tenney and his fellow prisoners have never acknowledged responsibility for their crimes, let alone offered compensation or regrets of any kind. (The companies needed the POWs to compensate for a wartime labor shortage.) The Japanese government has only just begun to offer its regrets for what happened -- far too late for most of the veterans, but, still, something. Perhaps most depressingly of all, the U.S. government has spent years allowing the Japanese to get away with it -- a policy of complicity that has its roots in the two countries' complex postwar relationship. There are signs that this, too, may finally be changing. Hope never dies, as they say.

I was reminded of all this recently, when the story popped up again. Most Americans, I suspect, have never heard about this rather depressing tale -- which brings us to yet another set of culprits: the media. I must count myself among those responsible in this particular group. A few years ago I was the Tokyo bureau chief for one of the big American news magazines. I met Tenney in Japan and accompanied him as he spoke to Japanese school classes, and watched as he got his story out to the new generation. But I wasn't able to interest my editors in the story. It wasn't anything nefarious on their part. They just weren't terribly interested in Japan, and even less so in tales about Japan's bad behavior during the war. Surely that was well-trodden ground -- hadn't I ever seen The Bridge On the River Kwai?

I can't entirely blame them, I guess. Forget, for a moment, the fact that an extraordinary 40 percent of the Allied POWs in Japanese hands never came back. Forget the fact that those who survived suffered from the highest rates of "combat fatigue" -- what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder -- of all of America's World War II veterans. Forget the fact that selling the prisoners to some 60 different Japanese companies represented a crass violation of the laws of war -- and that the way they were treated while working for the companies contravened the Imperial Army's own guidelines. Forget the fact that Chinese and Korean prisoners and forced laborers are still pressing (unsuccessfully) to have their claims recognized by Japanese courts. It was all a long time ago.

There's another problem. This happens to be one of those stories that come wrapped in the myriad legal and political subtleties that tend to accompany explorations of sins committed by governments in the past. In this case, for example, you have to do a bit of explaining about the peculiar history of the U.S.-Japan alliance. In 1951, as the Cold War was burning red hot in Korea, Washington realized that it needed a renascent Japan as its bulwark against communist designs on the Far East, and signed a set of agreements designed to wind up wartime claims and ensure Tokyo's loyalty to the Western camp in the decades to come. In one of those documents the Japanese agreed to let the Americans station troops on their territory, while in another -- the San Francisco Peace Treaty -- the Americans agreed to give the Japanese a pass on reparations. Article 16 of the treaty obligated the Japanese to pay a token amount to the International Red Cross "for the benefit of former prisoners of war" -- but the text carefully avoided describing the payment as "compensation," which might have created a precedent. No further claims by POWs would be recognized.

The former U.S. prisoners themselves never got anything from Japan -- and certainly not what they craved most, which was an official acknowledgment of the savage treatment that had been meted out to them not only by the Imperial Army in its prison camps, but also by the dozens of companies that used captured soldiers as laborers. (None of the companies ever paid the men for their work at the time, it should be noted.) It was not until 1995, under Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, that Japan offered its first, unequivocal official apology for Japan's wartime conduct. Over the years the Australian, British, Canadian, Dutch, and New Zealand governments managed to convince the Japanese that it would be in their interest to offer the ex-prisoners a gesture of goodwill. So Tokyo proceeded to invite ex-prisoners from those countries back to Japan on all-expense-paid trips -- an odd form of ersatz apology.

But the American POWs were left out -- and their own government was shockingly eager to leave it at that. Raison d'état -- in this case, the priority of keeping the U.S.-Japan alliance running smoothly -- trumped justice. "The Americans have been almost a hundred percent complicit in this," says Mindy Kotler, a Washington-based Japan expert  who works for the think tank Asia Policy Point. "They allowed the Japanese to not be accountable. They've given them a pass on the same values we hold dear."

When the U.S. survivors tried to push the Japanese to offer them similar treatment, the U.S. State Department sat on its hands -- as did many in Congress. Tenney testified before Congress on numerous occasions, but bills demanding action on the ex-prisoners' behalf inevitably died in committee, torpedoed by lawmakers eager to avoid tensions with Tokyo. The stillborn legislation included one measure that would have paid each surviving POW a one-off sum of $15,000 in acknowledgment of their wartime suffering. "Our Congress and our senators did a lousy job," says Tenney. (He then hastens to offer praise for the few who have stood up for the vets, naming Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.). When the veterans tried to sue the Japanese companies that once exploited their labor, the U.S. Supreme Court didn't even deign to consider their cases. (State and Justice Department officials actually filed briefs opposing the veterans' claims in the lower courts on the grounds that they disturbed the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty.)

At least we can finally talk about a bit of progress. Last year the Japanese parliament, the Diet, quietly issued an apology that finally included references to the POWs -- one that amounts to official recognition of Japan's moral responsibility for the prisoners' wartime suffering. And in May of last year the Japanese ambassador to the United States, Ichiro Fujisaki, offered an apology of his own, echoing the 1995 government declaration, at a San Antonio gathering of some of the surviving American prisoners. Not all of the Americans were mollified, though Tenney says that the ambassador's sally "took a lot of courage," given the bitterness among some of the veterans. And now even the folks at Foggy Bottom seem to be coming around. Within the past few months, the Japanese have offered to invite some of the remaining POWs over for visits, and U.S. diplomats have been working with officials in Tokyo to make it happen. So far the sum of money involved -- $180,000 -- is pitiable, only enough for a mere seven men (plus caregivers and spouses). But even that small effort represents a break with a shameful past.

And the companies? "They've never offered one dime," says Tenney. "Never an apology." It's actually hard to see what would prevent them from doing so -- other than the shame of acknowledging their responsibility for acts committed long ago. The ex-prisoners' demands certainly don't represent any economic threat. (The company that exploited Tenney's labor, Mitsui, is today one of the world's biggest corporations -- it owns a 10 percent stake in the drilling operation that is currently hemorrhaging oil into the Gulf of Mexico -- and its website offers an elaborate declaration of its affirmation of human rights.) And Tenney insists that it's not money he and his comrades are after -- just a proper apology from corporate Japan. You'd think that wouldn't be so hard to come by. But you would be wrong.

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Bank Shot

Nine years after 9/11, getting between extremist groups and their funding remains an uphill struggle.

Last week the U.S. government indicted Faisal Shahzad for his failed attempt to blow up Times Square with a car bomb. In the text of the prosecutor's case, one particular detail stands out: Shahzad's operation was financed by the Pakistani Taliban, which sent him the money in two installments -- one for $5,000, the other for $7,000. The cash arrived in the United States via hawalas, the traditional, informal South Asian networks used to transfer funds across international borders.

The transfer, both its method and small sum, speaks to the daunting difficulty of clamping down on terrorism financing. Had Shahzad's plan succeeded, he would have strewn death and destruction across the heart of America's biggest city for an amount that he could have used to buy, say, a really nice guitar. Consider that global foreign exchange markets process some $2 trillion each day, by some estimates. Five or seven K isn't even a drop in the bucket -- it's more like an atom.

In that sense, the Shahzad case underlines the daunting challenge that faces those who are fighting on a mostly forgotten front in the West's Long War against jihadi terrorism. Ever since 9/11, the United States and its allies have devoted enormous resources to finding, tracking, and stopping the flow of funds to militant groups around the world. As Shahzad's attempted bargain-basement spectacular demonstrates, however, it's a job that ranks on the difficulty chart right up with there with finding a cure for IEDs or tickling Ayman al-Zawahiri's beard.

That isn't to say there haven't been successes. Al Qaeda and its various franchises have so far failed to pull off another large-scale attack inside America's borders, and the "threat finance" experts claim some of the responsibility for that comforting nondevelopment. Within weeks of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the U.S. government machinery swung into action, creating a variety of interagency efforts and task forces to throw light on the flow of funds to myriad groups. Diplomats and Treasury Department officials cracked down on the dubious activities of Saudi charities, pressured banks in Dubai to comply with international money-laundering standards, and worked to undermine Hezbollah business operations in South America.

And don't think that it's only people in suits who are involved; the Pentagon is part of the mix, too. Robert Chase is a retired Marine who runs the Interagency Action Group (IAG) at the U.S. Central Command, the branch of the U.S. military that oversees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Centcom's stake in the issue came to light in May, when Gen. David Petraeus issued a remarkable press release praising a decision by senior Saudi clerics to issue a fatwa condemning anyone who knowingly finances terrorist attacks.) Chase's remit covers the full gamut of what one might call "economic warfare" against terrorist and insurgent groups in an area of operations extending from Kenya to Kazakhstan. The IAG collaborates with agencies including the Treasury Department, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Why the USDA? Two words: "opium poppies.") IAG activities range from training customs officers in Central Asia to frustrating the efforts of Hezbollah affiliates to worm their way into Beirut banks. "This has to do with the changing face of war itself," Chase says. "It's not a strictly military matter. These are not organizations like traditional militaries."

Like so many other aspects of the fight against terrorism, however, it's extremely hard to objectively measure the extent to which this work has borne fruit. Matthew Levitt, a veteran of the U.S. Treasury who now works for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, points out that there are virtually no reliable standards for gauging the success of efforts to counter terrorist finance. He says that the two "metrics" used most often in press coverage -- the amount of money seized and the number of organizations officially designated as sources of funding -- just don't provide an accurate picture. In the years after 9/11, he notes, many of the Islamic charities that sponsored various Middle East terrorist organizations were shut down under U.S. pressure -- only to reopen under new names within a matter of months or days.

And it could hardly be otherwise, considering the complexity, and the murkiness, of the issues at hand. Just consider the hawala system, which traders and migrants have been using since the eighth century to move cash across the Middle East and South Asia. Roger Ballard, of the Britain-based Center for Applied South Asian Studies, points out that people outside the networks often make the fundamental mistake of treating hawalas like banks. Unlike banks, which specialize in storing the money of their depositors for a variety of purposes, hawalas focus on getting funds through the system as quickly as possible -- which has the advantage of reducing bureaucracy to a minimum and, correspondingly, overhead as well. (As Ballard points out, what hawalas are transferring is an equivalent value rather than actual funds -- in stark contrast to the unwieldy methods your bank will use if you ever ask it to send money overseas.)

All this makes hawalas volatile creatures: Money paid at one end has usually gone out the other by the time any outsiders hear about the transaction. And though the individual sums are often small, the aggregate amounts quickly run into the billions -- much of which (including the remittances sent home by migrant laborers) is entirely legitimate in origin. All this makes life even more complicated for would-be financial detectives. "If you've decided that you're going to search through billions of dollars of transfers to find the sums that terrorists are using to blow things up," says Ballard, "you're looking for a needle in dozens of haystacks."

For that reason, there probably aren't many cases in which the money-hunters manage to isolate the funds for a particular operation before it can happen. (In Shahzad's case, the hawaladars who helped him get his cash almost certainly had no idea what the funds were going to be used for.) But there's no question that following money trails can be an effective weapon -- when you're lucky enough to have a trail to follow. "By following the flows up and down the financial pipelines, you can discover individuals you didn't know about before," says Levitt, who notes that financial flows -- along with communications and travel patterns -- are still among the most important intelligence tools that counterterrorism officials have at their disposal.

For his part, Chase agrees that it's impossible to stanch the flow of all funds via hawalas and other networks -- and that it probably wouldn't make sense to try. What you can reasonably expect to do, though, he says, is disrupt operations. "You can't necessarily stop the money," he says, "but you can make their lives extremely miserable." By way of example, he tells a story about the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC), an IAG affiliate aimed at stanching the flow of funds to the Taliban. Three months ago representatives from several Afghan hawalas approached the ATFC with a remarkable request: Centcom's recent strike against one of their number had affected business to such an extent that the hawaladars were prepared to open their books to the Americans to show that they were clean. Centcom took them up on the offer (though Chase won't reveal the precise results of this extraordinary collaboration).

Still, Chase gives his foes full credit when it comes to adaptability and innovation. The Taliban and their terrorist allies, he says, have shown considerable ingenuity in devising new ways to finance their operations. (One of the latest involves the use of stored-value cards; they can be issued anonymously, making them almost impossible to trace.) Small wonder, then, that no one can imagine what an ultimate "victory" against the sources of terrorist financing would possibly look like; all you can really do is keep plugging away at it. It's called the Long War for a reason.

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