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The News Without Transparency: U.S. Approved Business With Blacklisted Nations

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The New York Times published an article last December investigating the U.S. government’s approval of American companies doing business with countries blacklisted for sponsoring terrorism, such as Iran. According to the article, the Treasury Department has granted almost 10,000 licenses for business deals involving these blacklisted nations, some of which were impacted by political influence.

In addition to good reporting, the availability of data was essential to making this such a good investigative piece. That said, much of the underlying data for this article was hard to obtain, and the article itself says that even after the Times filed a FOIA request, “The process took three years, and the government heavily redacted many documents. . . ”

We investigated and have highlighted what data is publicly available and what data isn’t, but in some cases can be obtained through FOIA.

Publicly Available Data

The article highlights how much less business the United States did with Iran than China or Europe did, pointing out that “…in the first quarter of this year, 0.02 percent of American exports went to Iran.” The U.S. Census Bureau provides monthly and annual datasets detailing American foreign trade which provides information such as the data point used in the article. The annual report for 2010 is available here and can be viewed as a PDF or as a zip file for text or excel formats.

The article demonstrates how American exports to Iran have dramatically increased since the passage of legislation in 2000 exempting agricultural and medical humanitarian aid from trade sanctions, explaining that, “While Cuba was the primary focus of the initial legislative push, Iran, with its relative wealth and large population, was also a promising prospect. American exports, virtually nonexistent before the law’s passage, have totaled more than $1.7 billion since." The U.S. Census Bureau also provides data regarding U.S. foreign trade that is organized by country and year. The website provides a downloadable excel document with comprehensive data for all countries and years. The data for U.S. trade with Iran is located here.

The article suggests a connection between licenses granted that allow companies to trade with blacklisted countries and campaign donations, relating that, “While his electrodes were at sea, Mr. Liu had made his first ever political contribution, giving the senator’s campaign $2,000…Two months later, Mr. Liu sent the senator another $2,000 contribution, the maximum allowable.” Campaign donations are public information. Using Sunlight's Transparency Data you can find campaign contributions based on who gave, when they gave, and how much they gave. A search for Samuel Liu’s contributions between 2003-2004 immediately brings up his $2,000 campaign donations to Senator Inouye: one in August of 2003 and the other in February of 2004.

Information Not Made Available to the Public

Much of the data in the article is based on Treasury Department records providing the details of individual licenses granted to companies. To try to find the data we ran a search based on the terms "mccormick" "OFAC" and site:treasury.gov, to limit the search to within the Treasury website. We were able to find heavily redacted lists of licenses granted from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) under the Department of the Treasury. The spreadsheets provide the names of companies which have received licenses from OFAC, but do not provide substantive details about the reason for the license, or the amount or type of purchases made. We also found blank reporting and license applications, but not the completed applications from individual companies.

The Treasury Department did not return numerous messages left requesting additional insight into what information is and is not publicly available. More specific information may be available through individual FOIA requests, several of which are currently pending according to FOIA logs provided by Treasury. Based on how little information the Treasury provides online regarding this topic, it is likely that most of the following claims in the article are based on information obtained through FOIA, or just good investigative skills:

  • “…the Treasury Department has granted nearly 10,000 licenses for deals involving countries that have been cast into economic purgatory…”
  • “…records show that the United States has approved the sale of luxury food items to chain stores owned by blacklisted banks…”
  • “In its application to sell salt substitutes, marinades, food colorings and cake sprinkles in Iran, McCormick & Co. listed a number of chain stores that planned to buy its products.”
  • “On July 28, 2003, the plant’s owner, Samuel Liu, ordered 200 graphite electrodes from a Chinese government-owned company, China Precision Machinery Import Export Corporation.”
  • “Records show that the bank had agreed to confirm a letter of credit guaranteeing payment to a Malaysian exporter upon delivery of what were described as split-system air-conditioners to a Turkish importer.”

Additionally, The article cites phone and e-mail records. According to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), certain executive branch phone and email records are publicly available through FOIA requests. Frequent requests are supposed to be published in the online reading room, but research shows that not everything is always posted. Congressional and Judicial communication records are not required to be publicly released. The following data points from the story could possibly be obtained through FOIA:

  • “Records show that an Inouye aide called the licensing office on Mr. Liu’s behalf the same day that Mr. Palmiero recommended denying the application. The senator himself wrote two days later.”
  • “The following day, the licensing office’s director at the time asked the State Department to reconsider in an e-mail that prominently noted the senator’s interest.”

Our Policy Intern Eric Dunn contributed research assistance to this post.


"The News Without Transparency" shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we've redacted in the piece above. If you have an article you'd like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at mbuck@sunlightfoundation.com.