What started out as the persistent needling of a newspape columnist and the equally persistent prodding of a congressman has erupted into a major trans-Atlantic scandal. The clandestine sale of military technology to Iraq during the years just before its invasion of Kuwait was bad enough. But it is now clear that the Bush administration and the British government -- perhaps with the complicity of the Italian government -- conspired to cover up their own blunders by lying to their legislators and, for a while, to their courts.
After stone-walling and dissembling for months, both governments have now been forced to launch independent judicial inquiries. The U.S. investigator, retired Judge Frederick S. Lacey of New Jersey, already has found what amounts to prima facie evidence that crimes were committed by Bush administration officials. Court testimony in Britain points in the same direction there. And it is time the Italian government started answering questions about the shenanigans revolving around the Atlanta branch of a bank it owns. For starters, it would be interesting to know why a government-owned foreign bank needs a branch in Atlanta, and who its customers were.
For more than a year William Safire, columnist in the New York Times, and Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, chairman of the House Banking Committee, have been demanding public explanation of billion in U.S. loans, ostensibly for agricultural imports but mostly used for arms, granted to Saddam Hussein's regime by the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro branch in Atlanta. The local manager was indicted for defrauding the bank. As he was about to take a plea bargain, evidence surfaced that BNL officials in Rome knew of the loans, and so did U.S. intelligence officers. The White House and Justice Department meddled in the prosecution of the case, and it appears that some law enforcement officials knew about the BNL complicity.
Similarly in Britain, the trial of three businessmen for selling forbidden technology to Iraq abruptly ended when intelligence officers admitted they -- and perhaps high officials -- winked at the transactions in return for intelligence information.
It is clear that neither government is in position to investigate its own duplicity in these cases. Only fully independent investigations, with full subpoena powers, will suffice to dampen the stench of cover-up in both capitals.