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Latest revelations about the BCCI scandal are mind-boggling

A little over a year ago I wrote a column about what looked at the time like the most god-awful scandal to come down the road in years.

This thing was so far-reaching, so diabolical, it seemed certain to make Watergate look like the third-rate burglary some Republicans claimed it was.

Well I've just finished slogging through a 794-page government report on the scandal, and believe me it's even worse than I thought. Much worse.

This is the mother of all scandals and conspiracies. Maybe even the grandmother.

This is The Big One.

Consider, for a moment, what it might mean to have an organization around that could pull off the following:

Manipulate the Central Intelligence Agency and the spy agencies of Britain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Syria, Israel and who knows how many others all at the same time,

Run guns to Iran for Oliver North and make sure the money gets back to the Contras in Nicaragua,

Help Pakistan buy nuclear technology on the international black market and put together an atomic bomb,

Launder drug money for the Medellin cocaine cartel in Colombia,

Bankroll Abu Nidal, the most notorious terrorist in the world,

Handle Manuel Noriega's finances in Panama,

Procure prostitutes, some of them children, for traveling Middle Eastern potentates,

Rig international commodity markets so that a few insiders could make hundreds of millions of dollars in a single day,

Intimidate potential opponents to the point that they feared for their lives.

There's a lot more, but you get the idea. This is scary enough as it is.

What kind of organization could possibly have the wherewithal do these things? Who could dream up these schemes?

If you answered SPECTRE, the fiendish "Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion" that tried to do in James Bond in so many novels and movies, you're wrong, but not far off.

This organization is no figment of the imagination like SPECTRE. This one is real and it's known as BCCI _ the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.

But even though it's real, BCCI's exploits are no less fabulous than what you get in an Ian Fleming thriller. And neither is its enigmatic leader, Agha Hassan Abedi, a Pakistani businessman who could have lunch with the president of the United States one day and the world's top terrorist the next.

All of this _ the globe-spanning criminal network, the manipulation, the intimidation and the bribery _ is spelled out in a massive report put together by the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations.

The subcommittee released the report last week after spending four years investigating BCCI. Its main conclusion is that BCCI wasn't a real bank at all, but the biggest, most far-reaching criminal conspiracy in history.

There's hardly a major international scandal of the last 15 years in which BCCI hasn't figured. Even the collapse of America's savings and loan industry has its BCCI angle.

The Tampa Bay area is no stranger to BCCI, of course. The bank's office at 100 Kennedy Blvd. W in Tampa was at the center of a drug money laundering scheme that handled tens of millions of dollars a month before it was closed down by an federal sting operation three years ago.

And even though BCCI's worldwide operations were finally halted last year, prosecution of some of its principals _ notably former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford _ is still underway.

But despite the years of investigation, the arrests and confiscations, even the Senate subcommittee had to admit that we may never know the full extent of BCCI's crimes, how many top politicians it bribed or if it really had a so-called "black network" of assassins who would eliminate anyone who got in its way.

The reason we may never know is that as thorough as the Senate investigation may have been, it didn't have access to reams of information that could shed more light on BCCI.

The CIA has several hundred reports on BCCI but allowed the subcommittee to look at only three of them. British authorities also have a stockpile of information on BCCI they won't make available because it was classified by British intelligence, MI-5.

And key BCCI officials and witnesses, including Abedi, are remaining out of U.S. legal reach in Abu Dhabi, an oil sheikhdom on the Persian Gulf that has taken over nominal ownership of what's left of BCCI.

Even so, what we do know about BCCI is mind-boggling.

It's also incredibly complicated _ as the Senate subcommittee itself admits, almost beyond comprehension.

I've touched on just a few highlights of what BCCI was involved in. Over the coming days, I'll write about it again, looking at some of the more bizarre twists and turns and trying to make some sense out of it.

Hang on.

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