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BCCI's "rent-a-face' bribery scheme entangled Jimmy Carter

How do you bribe a former president of the United States so that he doesn't even know he's being bribed?

Buying off leaders in countries like Venezuela, Zimbabwe or Pakistan is one thing. The Bank of Commerce and Credit International, or BCCI, was well versed in that kind of bribery, and it was no big deal: Just turn over the money in the form of a "campaign contribution" or deposit it in a secret bank account in Switzerland or Luxembourg in exchange for favors rendered.

But buying off a president of the United States, even one just recently out of office like Jimmy Carter _ that would be something else again.

The way BCCI approached this delicate challenge is outlined in a fascinating report put together by the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations.

The chapter on Carter is only a small part of the 794-page report, and much of the information has come out before in dribs and drabs. Even so, the experience of our former president gives you an idea of how BCCI went from an obscure foreign bank to the biggest criminal conspiracy in history.

Carter, you'll remember, left office in January 1981 with little intact but his personal integrity. The U.S. economy was a mess, the Soviets had embarrassed him in Afghanistan, the Iranians had humiliated him in Tehran and Ronald Reagan had crushed him at the polls.

Even his peanut business back in Georgia was in financial trouble.

About the best thing you could say about Carter at the time was that he had been an honest, well-intentioned president who was revered in the Third World for his devotion to democracy as the basis of American foreign policy.

And this, of course, was exactly why BCCI was interested in Carter _ his reputation for honesty and concern for the Third World.

So in 1982, BCCI's mysterious Pakistani chairman, Agha Hassan Abedi, got himself introduced to the former president by Carter's old pal, Bert Lance.

At the time, Lance had become a key consultant to BCCI in the United States. BCCI had taken over Lance's old National Bank of Georgia and was paying its new adviser by taking care of his massive business debts.

In any case, Carter and Abedi hit it off immediately. Both were interested in Third World development issues, and it wasn't long before BCCI was contributing millions of dollars to Carter's presidential library, the Carter Center for Third World Studies in Atlanta and his Global 2000 international charity.

Through much of the 1980s, Carter and Abedi traveled around the world on BCCI's corporate jets. Among many others, Carter got Abedi introduced to Deng Xiaoping in China, the king of Thailand and former British Prime Minister James Callaghan.

Carter, of course, was using these trips to expand the operations of his Global 200 charity designed to improve health care in Third World countries. Abedi had something else in mind.

What the BCCI chief was doing was using Carter to meet the people who would open the way for expanding his bank's criminal operations. The Senate subcommittee report describes it this way:

"The countries to which President Carter traveled with Abedi became important banking centers for BCCI. In China, for instance, BCCI became the second foreign bank to be permitted to operate in the country and secured substantial deposits from the Chinese government and its business affiliates."

About Carter, the report concludes:

"The president became an unwitting pawn of BCCI, failing to acknowledge, even when it became obvious, that the bank was a criminal institution."

Though the report implies that Carter was exceptionally naive in his dealings with Abedi, it also blames the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency for failing to warn the former president he was playing with fire.

The CIA and State Department knew that BCCI was financing terrorism, laundering drug money and involved in worldwide gun-running, but kept silent, the report says. This left Carter "in the position of retaining close connections with a criminal institution for almost a decade and even helping the head of that criminal institution meet other powerful and influential people."

Carter was only one of dozens of world leaders to get caught in BCCI's worldwide web of conspiracy. His own ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, actually became a paid consultant to BCCI on a $50,000-a-year retainer. The report also says Jesse Jackson was approached by BCCI and wound up soliciting business for the bank.

BCCI's most important work in the United States was left to former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford, one of the country's most respected lawyers and political advisers. It was Clifford that BCCI had running its biggest asset here, the First American Bank based in Washington, D.C.

According to the report, important work also was done for BCCI by James Callaghan of Britain, U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Prime Minister Edward Seaga of Jamaica and a large number of African heads of state.

The point of all of this bribery and influence-buying _ BCCI insiders called it their "rent-a-face campaign" _ was to open the way for the bank's real business, its criminal operations.

The fact is that as a bank, BCCI was a complete failure. It lost money in all of its legitimate operations.

But as a launderer of drug money, as a facilitator of gun-running and as a corrupter of the political order, BCCI was an unqualified success _ in large part due to its many friends in high places.