By George Monbiot (THE GUARDIAN, 08/06/07):
Never let members of this government complain about corruption abroad. Never let them blame the failure of Tony Blair’s mission to rescue Africa on venal dictators and grasping officials. The allegations published in the Guardian yesterday about slush funds used to oil the Al-Yamamah deal suggest that there is nothing that foreign despots can teach us about corruption.In 2003, the Guardian uncovered evidence suggesting that the arms company BAE had been running a £60m slush fund, which it used to provide gifts and prostitutes to Saudi officials to facilitate its massive weapons deal. Prince Turki bin Nasser, the Saudi minister for arms procurement, was alleged to be a beneficiary. But the new allegations are on a different scale altogether. They allege that BAE channelled over £1bn to another Saudi official, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as payment for ensuring that Al-Yamamah proceeded. Most damagingly for this government, the fees are alleged to have continued, with the authorisation of the Ministry of Defence, after 2002, when the payment of commissions to foreign officials became illegal in the UK. Prince Bandar yesterday denied the payments were secret or backhanders, and said they were within the contracts.
The Guardian’s initial revelations gave the Serious Fraud Office little choice but to open an investigation. In 2005, the Saudi government informed Blair it would not lodge another order with BAE (for 72 Eurofighters) unless this case was abandoned. Last December, Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, instructed the SFO to drop the case. He and the prime minister cited «national security» as the reason for this surrender. Something was being secured all right: but it was BAE’s income and the backsides of the ministers – led by Blair – who put the company’s interests ahead of the nation’s.
This was not the first time Goldsmith intervened to prevent justice from being done. He has come to symbolise everything that is wrong with Blair’s government: the cowardice of ministers, lawyers’ truths, capitulation to corporations and foreign governments, and the judicial abuses permitted in a nation without a constitution. He represents something very old – the British establishment’s closing of ranks – and something new: the corruption of purpose and method that has attended the project of liberal interventionism from its inception.
In fairness to our craven attorney general, all this goes back a long way. The Defence Export Services Organisation (Deso), which allegedly oversaw these payments, has channelled money to corrupt officials in foreign governments since it was founded by the government 40 years ago. As documents unearthed by the Guardian show, this was and is its main purpose. Since the Al-Yamamah deal was signed in 1985, Britain has been supporting, financially and militarily, one of the world’s most despotic regimes.
This makes a mockery of successive governments’ claims to be supporting democracy around the world, and ensures our security is now entangled with that of the Saudi princes. Al-Qaida’s primary complaint is directed against the Saudi monarchy and the western support it receives. Like the war in Iraq, like Blair’s support for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and his uneven treatment of Israel and Palestine, this deal helps ensure Britain is a primary target for terrorism: not because our government acted on principle, but because it acted without it. Blair has invoked all the strategic threats from which he claims to defend us.
Close down Deso. Reopen the investigation. Sack the attorney general and the senior civil servants at the Ministry of Defence. Open a public inquiry to determine what Blair knew. Wage war on tax havens and secret offshore accounts. Hold BAE to account. Then lecture the rest of the world on good governance.