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The Tangled Path to a Response 

As we prepare to retaliate for last week's atrocities, let's take time to be sure of our targets

Wednesday, Sep 19 2001
At this distance in time and place from last Tuesday's terror, I feel an unjournalistic temptation to silence. So much has been written and broadcast by and about people who were at or near the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, so much published in the local media, reflecting almost every reaction, reasonable and otherwise. At a certain point, sheer repetition threatens to demean the victims of tragedy, even mass, history-altering tragedy.

So, because I have no experience of the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings that anyone with a television could not also possess, I have decided to relate something from my past, hoping that it might be new to you, and might help set some frames of reference, as the country ponders what it will do and become in the initial months of the coming bin Laden War.

In the late 1980s, when I lived in Houston and earned my keep as an investigative reporter, I spent months looking into possible connections among Texas business and political figures and Middle Eastern notables associated with the fascinatingly fraudulent Bank of Credit and Commerce International. In the end, my BCCI investigations didn't add up to a whole lot; chasing worldwide fraud is not a particularly rewarding pursuit for a local reporter without an expense account. As an offshoot of my research, however, I ran upon, and wound up writing some stories about, a Houston airplane broker named James R. Bath.

Among his varied business activities, Mr. Bath represented, as a sort of business agent, at least four prominent and wealthy Saudi Arabian citizens in their U.S. investments. According to public records, those citizens included Salem (sometimes spelled Salim) bin Laden, the favored son of the founder of a great Saudi construction empire, and one of dozens of half-brothers of a then-obscure man named Osama bin Laden.

Bath's associations did not exclusively involve Saudi petrodollars. Among other things, he also counted as a friend and minor business partner another man who, except for his family connections, was not well known to the wider public: George W. Bush.

A story I co-wrote for the Houston Post in October 1990 put the relationship between George W. Bush and Jim Bath this way: "George W. Bush said he met Bath [in the 1970s] when both were fighter pilots at the ANG [Air National Guard] base at Ellington [Field, a former Air Force base near Houston]. The younger Bush ... described Bath as a friend who is "a lot of fun.' George W. Bush said he last saw Bath about three years ago, and speaks to him perhaps once a year."

For that story, Bush said he had never been in business with Bath, American agent to part of the bin Laden fortune. The assertion was less than completely true, if subsequent stories in Time magazine and the Houston Chronicle are to be believed.

"In sworn depositions, Bath said he represented four prominent Saudis as a trustee and that he would use his name on their investments. In return, he said, he would receive a 5 percent interest in their deals," a Houston Chronicle piece about a lawsuit between Bath and a business partner said. "Tax documents and personal financial records show that Bath personally had a 5 percent interest in Arbusto '79 Ltd., and Arbusto '80 Ltd., limited partnerships controlled by George W. Bush, President Bush's eldest son. Arbusto means "bush' in Spanish.

"Bath invested $50,000 in the limited partnerships, according to the documents. There is no available evidence to show whether the money came from Saudi interests."

Time, which first confirmed the Bath/ Bush investment connection, wrote this about the airplane broker: "Bath controlled a fleet of companies connected to his aircraft business, and he enjoyed unusual carte blanche to direct the U.S. investments of several wealthy Middle Easterners. Associates confirm that Bath has brokered more than $150 million in private plane deals in recent years, concentrated in sales and leases to Middle Eastern royalty and other influential figures. ... The firm that incorporated Bath's companies in the Cayman Islands is the same one that set up a money-collecting front company for Oliver North in the Iran-contra affair."

The Chronicle and Time pieces (and to some degree, alas, the story I wrote 11 years ago) have a sort of breathless, agape tone, as if Bath's connections were almost magically far-reaching. "Bath, while insisting he is nothing more than a "small, obscure businessman,' is associated with some of the most powerful figures in the U.S. and Middle East," Time observed.

Through subsequent experience, some of it involved with covering the Persian Gulf War, I came to know, much more completely, that the connections among the Saudi and American oil industries are many, and intricate, and of long standing. A decade ago, a tenuous, friend-of-a-friend association between the lower levels of the bin Laden and Bush families did not wind up meaning much. In many senses, it probably has less meaning now.

Spokesmen for the bin Laden family have repeatedly stressed that the family ostracized Osama in 1993 when he became a fugitive and began activities in Sudan before going to Afghanistan. "The family is absolutely mortified by what has happened in New York, and totally rejects Osama's activities and ideology. I know that Osama has no business connections with them in any shape or form," a London in-law to the bin Ladens said last week.

But if I am not suggesting a direct or nefarious connection between George W. Bush and anyone named bin Laden -- and I truly am not -- there is a reason I've written today about obscure facts from 11 years ago. I recount these facts because you will be hearing a lot in coming weeks and months about people, organizations, and entire countries with "links" and "connections" to Osama bin Laden. Those with such links and connections may well be marked out for arrest, or abduction, or annihilation.

But proving, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that such linkage amounts to aid for terrorism takes time and money. The tangle of financial and other relationships that characterizes al Qaeda, the shadowy movement headed by bin Laden, is complex beyond the general imagination. As investigation of the World Trade Center and Pentagon atrocities continues, the arc of relationship between enemies will, at times, veer oddly -- even ironically -- close to friends, or to those who may dislike U.S. policy in the Middle East but would never countenance the slaughter of innocents.

For example: It is no particular secret that at least some of bin Laden's financing has come from wealthy Saudis. It is regularly speculated in the international press, in fact, that Saudi businessmen are essentially paying his organization to refrain from targeting the Saudi kingdom and its royal family. Is paying protection a "link," or an understandable reaction to threats from a madman with a worldwide following? Is knowing about such payments, but not moving to stop them, a "link"?

Is there any reason, except the political, to believe that retaliation for last Tuesday's attacks will be less valid if investigators spend weeks or even months exploring such links, and making sure the targets we choose represent real, and not just possible, enemies?

Lest anyone misunderstand, let it be known, and clearly, that I have no patience -- at all -- with the arguments of those who counsel a judicial, rather than military, response to the evil acts that killed 5,000 innocents last week. My sentiments are well expressed by this quote, contained in a recent Peter Maas piece in the online magazine Slate: "This may not be politically correct, but I don't want justice here," Maas quoted a special forces captain as saying. "These people do not need to be brought to justice or apprehended. They need to be killed. That's what you do to your enemy in war -- you destroy him. And this is a war."

If it is a war, it's a peculiar kind, one in which the enemy may be the brother of a friend of a friend, and relative unknowns may step quickly to the center of the world stage. When I was in Houston just 11 years ago, after all, Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush were at best footnotes to the footnotes of history.

In such conflict, it would seem, there is special reason to take care, to strike only at documented demons. Smite, yes, but verify.

For memory is long, and the killing of innocents creates enemies who cannot forget.


About The Author

John Mecklin


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