Frontline: Black Money

As Frontline producer Lowell Bergman describes it, those who give and receive bribes function without worry that the rule of law, so-called, will ever quite apply to them.


Airtime: Tuesday, 9pm ET
Cast: Lowell Bergman, David Leigh, Helen Garlick, Peter Gardner. Louis Freeh
Subtitle: Black Money
Network: PBS
US release date: 2009-04-07

Innocent until investigated? That's nice. It's got a nice ring to it. Bet you've worn some miles on old sayings like that. Gives the listener the sense of the law being written as it's spoken.

-- Bob Barnes (George Clooney), Syriana (2005)

Even if Britain permanently closed down the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation into BAE and every future investigation into alleged Saudi corruption, this would change nothing. Saudi Arabia is a closed country, and will remain one as long as the al-Saud rule it.

-- Robert Baer, April 2008

"Bribery was something you deducted from your tax expenses." In the world of weapons systems and sales, corruption and self-interest are the order of every day. As Frontline producer Lowell Bergman describes it, insiders function without worry that the rule of law, so-called, will ever quite apply to them. Instead, they deflect all questions concerning their business practices by insinuating threats to Western national securities and paying off anyone who might be persuaded by money -- that is, almost everyone.

For Black Money, premiering tonight on PBS, Bergman begins on May 13, 2008, when Mike Turner, CEO of BAE (British Aerospace, now BAE Systems, the world's third largest weapons producer), was stopped when he landed at Houston's George Bush International Airport. After being questioned by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Turner was released. His detainment, however brief, suggested that the Justice Department, who ordered the interrogation, was taking its edict against bribery "seriously."

That's not to say that such seriousness yields actual results, whether legal or political. It is to say that the bad behaviors of arms dealers, governments, and unimaginably wealthy families tend to fall into a different sort of category than the bad behaviors of others. The JD probe at the time had to do with the Al Yamamah contracts with Saudi Arabia, extraordinarily high stakes and deeply secret deals that were initiated in 1985 and involved, among others, BAE, Prince Turki bin Nasser, and Prince Bandar bin-Sultan.

Black Money repeats some familiar information, for instance, that Bandar is close with the Bush family (he's been called "Bandar Bush") as well as Jimmy Carter (who recalls with a smile that he has gone quail hunting with his "friend"). It is less well known, perhaps, that Bandar also worked with President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher to negotiate Al Yamamah, a series of arms sales by the U.K. to Saudi Arabia worth $80 billion, allegedly filtering money through Saudi embassy accounts in Washington DC over some 10 years. As Black Money reports, Bandar allegedly used money from these accounts for personal expenses, including a private Airbus A340 that he had painted blue and silver, the colors of his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.

Lowell Bergman in London

Bandar's expenditures were uncovered by David Leigh of the Guardian, whose research coincided with and aided an investigation conducted by Britain's SFO (Serious Fraud Office). As Black Money follows this investigation, it takes on a peculiar shape, something between catch-up and cautionary journalism, recalling Leigh's work (whose interview here tends to reaffirm facts that have not fully acknowledged and that have produced essentially no legal penalties, like, "Secret cash payments... had gone on literally for years" or "There are pots of black money that nobody sees and nobody has to account for... People steal it because they know they can").

The case, as described by Leigh and Helen Garlick, assistant director at the SFO at the time, was in part goaded by the U.S. Justice Department. Backed by 1977's Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) -- enacted when it became overwhelming clear that U.S. companies were bribing all manner of government officials, domestic and foreign, a regular practice that reached a kind of frenzy during the Nixon era -- the JD had been aggressively pursuing American companies for bribery, including General Electric, Lockheed, and Goodyear. However, as Stanley Sporkin, head of enforcement at the SEC, puts it, even as the legal parameters changed after Nixon, "the culture did not change." Only the levels of secrecy changed.

As Exhibit A, Black Money reports that Prince Bandar's family has spent millions of dollars on political contributions, Rolls-Royces, a honeymoon for the Prince's daughter, and U.S. shopping sprees (one of Bandar's "lady friends" reportedly chartered a 747 to send her purchases home). More disturbing, perhaps, is that the investigation was halted by the British government, specifically, Tony Blair. The investigation, he assessed in a statement shutting it down, had "given rise to a real and immediate risk of a collapse in UK/Saudi security, intelligence, and diplomatic cooperation."

If all this is catch-up -- fascinating as it may be -- the cautionary element has to do with deals going forward. Black Money submits that the Obama administration's defense spending and international deal-making might take the lessons of Al Yamamah very "seriously."

With that, the program concludes, some players remain undaunted. Though Prince Bandar would not speak with Bergman this time, he appears here in a 2001 interview with Frontline, serene and self-assured. "So what?" he answers a question about his corruption. "We did not invent corruption... This happened since Adam and Eve... We are not as bad as you think."

Maybe, even worse. Robert Baer, former CIA operative, makes the point that the truth of Bandar's claims that the BAE payments weren't a bribe does not ultimately matter. "The point is," Baer writes, "that Bandar does not know where the money ultimately ended up." Indeed. The circuitous routes of such sums, and more importantly, the loyalties and layers of secrets the money has purchased, are of much deeper concern.


James Baldwin Matters

There's a reason why Ta-Nehesi Coates is often compared to James Baldwin, and there's a reason why Baldwin's work is so relevant in the age of Black Lives Matter.

Pop Ten
Collapse Expand Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.