I think Harper is absolutely right in suggesting that, important though the corruption story may be, the political element — centering around the ‘slush fund’ — is the really significant element in this story. I am curious about, and slightly surprised by, his calling this a ‘MI6 slush fund’. From what little I know of the story — and I have not followed it closely — it seems quite likely that we are dealing with linkages involving elements in Saudi Arabia, Britain, and the United States. Looking back at the coverage of the ‘Welch Club’ and related matters on this blog and elsewhere from a year back, I recalled a comment quoted in Seymour Hersh’s ‘Redirection’ piece, from a ‘Pentagon consultant’. There were, the ‘Pentagon consultant’ remarked: ‘many, many pots of black money, scattered in many places and used all over the world on a variety of missions’. Given the involvement of Bandar both in Iran-Contra and recent hi-jinks, as well as Al-Yamamah, there certainly seem grounds for suspecting that one of the functions of the contract, from the outset, may have been to create such ‘pots of black money’. An interesting discussion of the ‘slush fund’, in an article in the Financial Times last July by Stephen Fidler hardly dispels these suspicions. (See http://search.ft.com/ftArticle?sortBy=gadatearticle&queryText=yamamah+fidler&y=7&aje=true&x=15&id=070702000587&ct=0.)
According to Fidler, Al-Yamamah was ‘used, with the help of the British government, as a secret tool of Saudi foreign policy.’ The arrangement, he suggested, ‘at least initially, involved a special account controlled by the Saudis at the Bank of England’ — which received the funds from the sale of Saudi oil. He went on to say that ‘some or all of the payments from the Bank of England account were routed through the UK’s Defence Export Services Organisation, part of the Ministry of Defence.’ This certainly raises the suspicion that the arrangement was from the start a kind of joint Saudi-British venture to provide resources for operations — such as support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan — where resistance from legislative bodies and within bureaucracies got in the way of what leading policymakers wanted to do. It seems to however inherently unlikely that Mrs Thatcher — who has always been very strongly Atlanticist — would have gone behind the back of leading figures in the Reagan Administration in becoming involved in this kind of activity. It seems to me however eminently possible she was acting in tandem with the efforts of such figures to circumvent Congress. The dating is perhaps also worth noting: the letter from King Fahd stating his intent to buy 48 Tornados and 30 Hawk trainers was sent in August 1985, just as President Reagan was authorising the sale of arms to Iran. The suggestion by Fidler that ‘at least initially’ the arrangement involved this special account controlled by the Saudis seems to imply that arrangements may have changed subsequently. But I would somewhat surprised if it were simply controlled out of MI6 — and even if it were, I would tend to suspect that those involved in that organisation were not acting simply on their own behalf, but as part of transnational networks. Another matter which continues to puzzle me is just how large the ‘pots of black money’ involved in Al-Yamamah have been. Obviously, the fact that monies have been invested with hedge funds — at a time of historically very investment returns — means that the total amounts may indeed be very much greater than the amounts the Saudis put in. However, if one could be reasonably clear about how much was put in, it might be possible at least to get very rough figures for the totals available for under-the-counter operations, using data on investment returns. According to Fidler, the volume of oil supplied varied, while cash may have been both put in to and taken out of the account — which would seem to make computation of the net amount the Saudis put in difficult. ‘The first oil lifting under the contract [Fidler writes] was on January 31 1986 of 1.8m to 1.9m barrels. The Saudis agreed to deliver 300,000 barrels per day [plus or minus 10 per cent] for the first three years of the contract. The amount of oil delivered varied with fluctuating oil prices up to a reported maximum of 600,000 bpd in 1993, when a new and expanded contract called Al-Yamamah 2 came into force, and fell to 400,000 in 1998 after the last Tornado was delivered. At times, the kingdom replenished the account with cash – and at other times there was a surplus that was available for distribution.’ Even leaving aside investment returns from hedge funds, it is I think reasonably safe to assume that the difference between what the Saudis paid into Al-Yamamah and what was paid out to BAE is a great deal more than can be accounted for by bribes to Bandar and others. But I would be interested to know more about the basis on which the ‘estimated (in current dollars) $160 billion in cash’ figure was calculated. But whatever the precise figures, the whole affair really looks like a can of worms, and I do devoutly hope that that Harper is right in saying ‘the action is just beginning.’ The whole things looks like a very important sub-plot in the general story of the subversion of constitutional government, on both sides of the Atlantic, by individuals and groups with an unhealthy fascination with covert operations and a contempt for the constraints on their activities created by democratic systems.