Derek and the Bad Men, pt 1

One of the more memorable evenings of my life was spent with Derek Sambrook and his family in a downtown motel ballroom on a steamy hot night in Panama City, Panama. Derek is Managing Director of Trust Services, S.A., in Panama City. He is English but has spent most of his adult life in “the colonies” (various African countries, and now Panama). Granted the Brits never had a significant colonial presence in Panama, but Geoffrey Rush, who played the tailor in The Tailor of Panama (the movie adaptation of John LeCarré’s novel of the same name) was so very colonial British in that role, and an evening with the Sambrooks felt like it came right out of the movie.

The LeCarré book is a spy novel, full of government intrigue where individual lives are held in the balance by arbitrary and faceless governments halfway around the globe. My conversation with Derek had some of the same feel. For the last seven years companies like Trust Services, S.A. have been under a great deal of pressure by the United States to do illegal things. (Specifically, to turn over information about clients that is specifically forbidden by law in their various jurisdictions. Often the punishment is loss of license and prison sentences that are counted not in months, but years.) But in order to understand the full irony of the U.S. demanding that foreigners become felons in their own countries, a bit of history is in order.

Modern international privacy and banking law (as epitomized by Switzerland, Panama, etc.) grew directly out of the two World Wars. Switzerland had a history of banking privacy long before the mid-twentieth century, but during this period the United States and United Nations promoted this body of law as a fundamental human rights issue. During WWII, for instance, both Germany and Italy were freezing all the assets of people (especially Jews) who didn’t agree with government policies. Even when they allowed dissidents to leave the country, they charged them huge “exit taxes,” which were in reality legalized thefts of these people’s life savings. In this way these countries were able to control their wealthy citizens who had the means to speak out against the atrocities that were going on.

After WWII, under pressure from the United States, these practices—huge exit taxes, not allowing citizens free access to foreign bank accounts, etc.—were, if not formally declared violations of human rights, certainly classified as such by the United Nations. It was in this environment that Derek Sambrook entered the international financial business. He was one of the good guys, going to some of the hot spots in the world (first Africa, and then Latin America) helping people protect their lives from the bad guys—those that would blackmail them to gain international support or notoriety.

But all that changed with a stroke of the pen some time after September 2001. In one of the great acts of Orwellian double speak, the United States government declared this whole area of human rights advocacy a shady business primarily interested in supporting terrorism. Sambrook, his company, and companies like it—some of the brave good guys of the world who were carrying out the will of the post-World War human rights agenda of the United Nations—had suddenly become suspects and targets in the U.S. war against terror.

Over the next seven years these very things that the United States had pushed as basic human rights in their fifty year old fight against Fascism and Communism—huge exit taxes and free access to foreign bank accounts, for instance—were made virtually illegal in “the land of ‘the free’ and home of the brave.” Pretty soon IRS and SEC officers (the Secret Service of the modern economic state) were poking around Sambrook’s office and harassing anyone who walked through the front door at Trust Services, S.A.

But Mr. Sambrook is British, and with a stiff upper lip, a cup of tea in the morning and a shot of whiskey at night even these terrors foisted upon him from American officials could be faced. His work must go on! (I kept glancing at the door, waiting for the debonair but creepy Pierce Brosnan (Andy Osnard the MI-5 agent from The Tailor of Panama) to come walking in. But he never did.

Sambrook was a great storyteller. Even if only half his story was true, it was a frightening tale. The next day I visited briefly with former Congressman Bob Bauman (who is a good friend of Sambrook’s) and he assured me that while Derek has been known to embellish a bit for the sake of a good story, what he told me in the ballroom was more true than I could know.

I have a point to this story, and I’ll make that point tomorrow.