By Mike Rowley
The extent of the pressure put on the Serious Fraud Office by Tony Blair’s government to drop its investigation last year into British Aerospace’s alleged systematic bribery of Saudi Arabian officials has finally come to light.
Robert Wardle, the head of the SFO, was pressured at least seven times to drop the investigation before Tony Blair asked for an end to it, citing “national security” — Blair was afraid the corrupt Saudi dictatorship would be upset if it was revealed that they take bribes, and that they might stop secret service cooperation with MI6.
And Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith, who was partly responsible for putting pressure on the SFO, claimed that “lives would be at risk”. A spokesperson for Blair even suggested that his intervention was made out of concern for the Middle East “peace process”!
But according to “legal sources” quoted in the Guardian (23 January), “no claim was made by MI6 then or later that national security was in danger” and John Scarlett, head of MI6, refused to endorse the government dossier (sound familiar?) which said national security was at stake.
But maybe it’s actually simpler than it seems. Goldsmith has also said that British Aerospace (BAE) wrote to him “warning of the adverse impact on business from the loss of a Eurofighter Typhoon agreement [with the Saudi dictatorship] unless the SFO investigation...was halted.” And he had conveyed BAE’s views to the head of the SFO.
It is, to say the least, not usual for the Attorney-General to “convey the views” of an organisation suspected of serious crimes to the Serious Fraud Office, to the effect that they should just stop investigating. But it seems if you’re a big capitalist company that’s the least service you can expect in Blair’s Britain.
After the SFO went ahead and seized documents from BAE’s Swiss bank accounts, indentifying secret payments totalling more than £1,000 million to Saudi middlemen, Tony Blair “updated” his demand that the investigation should cease. John Reid, then the defence secretary and in charge of promoting arms sales to foreign governments, joined in the chorus in favour of impunity. Finally, the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, went to see the head of the SFO three times, demanding the investigation be dropped. Finally it was dropped.
According to BAE’s website, “good working relationships have been developed with our Saudi customers”. Yes indeed. It’s lucky for BAE shareholders that the company also has a “good working relationship” with the British government — and that’s for free.
Now the SFO is planning a trip to South Africa, in cooperation with the South African anti-mafia police, to investigate BAE corruption there. South African newspaper the Mail and the UK Guardian claims that the company developed a “web of influence” in the country in order to secure a £2,300 million arms deal. Two South Africans have been convicted of fraud and imprisoned in connection with this deal, and an investigation against former deputy President Jacob Zuma is in a curious kind of “hibernation”.
The SFO has named four BAE executives saying that “there is reasonable cause to believe that all the above-named persons and company have committed offences of corruption.” How long, we wonder, before Tony Blair discovers that this investigation too is against “the national interest”, or, to put it more accurately, the interests of cynical British billionaires and corrupt foreign governments?