A record bank heist

William Safire

July 12, 1991|By William Safire

Washington -- THE MOST lucrative bank heist in history ($5 billion and counting) has taken place over the past decade in front of the eyes of an anesthetized or slow-footed gaggle of lawmen and bank regulators.

BCCI -- the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, known widely as "the Bank of Crooks and Criminals International" -- has belatedly had its barn doors slammed around the world, after providing gangsters and banksters a means of financing global drug operations and laundering its profits.

"If you manage to tap the motherlode on the item I mentioned," writes a reliable informant, "it will make some of your earlier efforts pale by comparison. Many big trees are going to fall in the forest."

I suppose "earlier efforts" refers to columns in the '70s on Bert Lance, the Carter budget director. He sold his National Bank of Georgia to Ghaith Pharaon, a Saudi who turns out to have been a front man for BCCI, which later secretly took control of the biggest bank holding company in Washington, D.C. Bert's notoriety kept him out of that deal, for which he should now be thankful.

The Lance lawyers, Clark Clifford and Robert Altman, stepped forward to run the bank company, making a bundle, and claim they never knew it was controlled by BCCI.

I want to believe Clark, who confesses only to having been an amiable dunce, because he is dean of the society of former White House speechwriters, none of whom has ever been indicted.

The mistake most of us make in looking at the BCCI megascandal is to focus on the fall from grace of an 84-year-old Washington establishmentarian. That's only the beginning.

Here was an underworldwide financial institution, taking advantage of the see-no-evil governments of Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands, devoted at least partly to servicing the transformation of hot cash from narcotics and illegal arms sales into usable wealth for racketeers and corrupt officials.

The Professor Moriarty of finance is a Pakistani named Agha Hasan Abedi, who with Kamal Adham, the head of Saudi intelligence, built an off-the-books empire. Abedi had heart trouble last year and turned the operation over to the ruler of Abu Dhabi, one of the original backers.

The Abedi trick to avoiding regulation was not merely to hire the best legal and influence talent, but to play the philanthropist and to use front banks to offer favorable financing to politicians of every stripe, and to obstruct justice by involving the world's intelligence agencies.

Jimmy Carter was a beneficiary; he was provided airplanes, $500,000 for the Carter Center and millions for his do-good foundations. In Britain, former Prime Minister Callaghan was a BCCI lobbyist; in Pakistan, Nigeria and India, top officials were in Abedi's deep pockets.

We don't yet know how many other politicians were beholden to the underworld bank for fees, mortgages or loans. Or what other U.S. banks were infected. Or what businesses in Washington, London or Riyadh were purchased with its money.

After the Florida branch of BCCI was convicted in 1989 of laundering drug money, our Department of Justice on Feb. 16, 1990, asked Florida's comptroller to let certain criminal BCCI business go forward if its license was renewed.

This suggests a sting, or too-willing cooperation with BCCI to nail General Noriega, or perhaps a cover for a CIA proprietary; instead, Florida cut off this tentacle of the BCCI octopus.

This typifies the way our police and regulators are falling over each other. Four grand juries compete; Dick Thornburgh's Justice, having dragged a foot on Atlanta's Lavoro bank scam, is slow off the mark, playing catch-up to New York District Attorney Morgenthau's investigation; Federal Reserve monitoring of cash flows is abysmal; British, Saudi and U.S. intelligence are probably closing BCCI-financed shops.

Who has the stolen billions? How much is straight fraud, how much a drug drawdown? A heist this huge, with its ties to political fixers and the dope cartel, cries out for a worldwide investigation.

President Bush should create a new "Untouchables" -- a unit of law officers, global bankers, securities experts and customs enforcers -- to pull these probes together and go for the underworld's financial jugular.

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