BCCI Remains in the Shadows

August 20, 1993

The BCCI scandal was so immense that it probably is impossible ever to completely untangle it. Thousands of depositors -- fortunately, none in this country -- lost billions of dollars in the shadowy Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Its operations were based in the free-wheeling financial milieu of the Middle East. Some of its principal figures have taken refuge there, out of range of western authorities. A lot of bank regulators hoped the fraud and bribery cases against two prominent Washington lawyers would help unlock some of BCCI's well-guarded secrets. The recent acquittal in New York of one of them, Robert A. Altman, effectively dampens that hope.

BCCI's legal problems in the U.S. arose from its surreptitious and illegal attempt to take over First American Bank in Washington. Mr. Altman and his mentor, Clark Clifford, were accused of covering up First American's ownership. This sort of white-collar bTC offense is hard to prove. The New York prosecutors did not even come close.

Federal prosecutors stood aside while New York pursued its case. Mr. Clifford's trial was postponed because of his health. Technically, federal charges can still be pursued but as a practical matter the case is closed.

All this leaves important questions unanswered. Were U.S. bank regulators blind to evidence that BCCI was taking over First American? Were regulators covering up their own ineptness by prosecuting the lawyers? Did U.S. officials ignore BCCI's activities because it was a money conduit for the Central Intelligence Agency? Did New York and Washington prosecutors mess up the case in their unseemly race to get the high-profile defendants into a courtroom first?

It is possible investigations of BCCI in Europe, where the losses were much greater, or civil cases still pending here will shed light on the BCCI scandal. But the best evidence is buried in the money bazaars around the Persian Gulf. It is unlikely to be unearthed soon.

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