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The Clinton administration's plan to redesign American currency - which Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen called a "pre-emptive strike" against counterfeiters - may in fact be a measured response to an international menace that's growing out of control.

Over the next several years, U.S. paper currency will undergo its first extensive redesign since 1929. In an effort to thwart counterfeiters, the greenback will be altered in several ways, beginning in 1996 with the $100 bill, most notably by moving the picture left and by adding a complex watermark.Judging from a recent report by a House Republican task force on terrorism chaired by Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., the currency redesign may be a response to a problem that is far larger than the administration will admit. According to the report, the most serious counterfeiting threat to the greenback is coming from abroad - particularly Iran, Syria and Lebanon - at a pace that is now in the billions of dollars per year. The report further alleges that the proceeds from these high-tech counterfeit dollars, also called "super dollars," are being used to finance the nuclear ambitions of Iran and its Middle East allies.

"Over the last few years . . . the spread of extremely high quality counterfeit money has continued to rise," the report begins. "Furthermore, there is every indication that the problem will continue to grow as distributors adopt numerous new methods and venues for smuggling this bogus cash," continues the report, which was released on the same day the currency redesign was announced.

The distribution of these counterfeit bills appears to have been greatly aided by the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. As organized criminal activity rises in these former Communist states, the lure of cheap American dollars has helped fuel a money-laundering boom in Europe and has elevated the amount of nuclear and high-technology smuggling from the former Communist countries to the radical states of the Middle East. Some other allegations outlined in the report:

- The Italian Mafia has, since 1993, become the primary middleman in the counterfeit trade. Iran, Syria and Lebanon "provide the Italian Mafia with counterfeit dollars and drugs at a reduced price as payment for nuclear goods," the report states. "The Italian Mafia sells the drugs and launders the money through its international connections, with the Russian Mafia playing an increasing role in these functions as well, and then diverts some of the profits to various financial centers, mainly Germany, as payment on behalf of their buyers."

- By one estimate, at the end of 1992, more than half the foreign currency in circulation in Central Asia was fake.

- The recent abundance of counterfeit American dollars is spawning a new money-laundering center in Western Europe. "At present, money is being laundered by the Italian Mafia through the gambling establishments of Western Europe, mainly Monaco and Germany."

House Republicans are not the only ones to raise the prospect that counterfeiting has evolved into a state-sponsored enterprise. Robert Leuver, head of the American Numismatic Association and a former director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, was one of the first government officials to blow the whistle on the growing sophistication of counterfeit currency. He recently told our associate Jan Moller that the quality of today's counterfeits show a sophisticated hand at work.

"Whoever is making this money has a security mill to be able to produce bills with cotton and insert the (security) thread" currently found in the dollar, Leuver said. "The quality of today's counterfeit notes is so good that it almost has to be a state-sponsored operation."