This month has seen a very uneventful conclusion to the criminal case once regarded as the greatest international corruption investigation in US history. In one stroke, the prosecutors dropped about 60 charges of overseas bribery, money laundering, tax evasion, and mail and wire fraud. The individuals under scrutiny are, on the one hand, multinational oil giants, and on the other, the President of Kazakhstan. The allegations involve a labyrinth of numbered accounts in Swiss banks and multi-million bribes being paid to win lucrative contracts. In short, the trial of the century has been cancelled.
The defendant, James Giffen, owns a fairly small investment bank in the U.S., employing just a handful of people. Yet, it was Giffen who personally controlled the flow of oil from one of the largest producers in the world – Kazakhstan – for many years. Until being taken in handcuffs from the JFK airport in 2003, he was known as the “oil consigliere” to Kazakhstan’s President Narsultan Nazarbayev. Among the captains of the oil industry, Giffen was known as “Mr. Kazakhstan.” It was Giffen who arranged oil deals worth billions of dollars, made by multinational companies in Kazakhstan throughout the 1990s.
Needless to say, big business in Central Asia is not always done in spotlessly white gloves. The case was settled, however, with a plea bargain. The consigliere pled guilty to giving inaccurate information about his foreign bank accounts on his 1996 tax return. He will be sentenced in November – six months in prison at most.
The plea bargain relieves Giffen of the obligation of telling his side of the story – a story which, he claimed, is rooted in the dark secrets of the Cold War. His defense lawyers portrayed him as an American super-spy, whose unscrupulous financial operations over two decades were actually intelligence operations authorized officially or unofficially by the CIA, the State Department, and the White House. The case was protracted for seven years because his lawyer applied for disclosure of secret documents from state agencies.
All of this has suddenly become of no interest to the prosecutor and judge. The defendant simply forgot to check a box on a tax form. As for that odd $84 million in frozen Swiss bank accounts, a deal has been made with Kazakhstan and Switzerland whereby the money will be spent on programs for poor children and to improve transparency in the Kazakh oil industry.
This is certainly one of those cases which might be justifiably called a legalized cover up. But there is more to it than just protecting high-ranking officials. It is true that Giffen’s story is deeply rooted in the secrets of the Cold War – and it was in nobody’s interest to have those secrets revealed in an open court. That is why the government fought tooth and nail to keep their secret documents under seal, and eventually chose to let Giffen off the hook rather than open a Pandora’s box.
However, Giffen’s activities have left a document trail in the Soviet secret archives as well as in the American ones. Despite all the efforts of the secretive Russian regime, some of these documents have leaked out. Below, they are made public for the first time.
How could a small investment banker become one of the most powerful figures in the world of global oil trade?
During the Cold War, East-West trade was closely interlinked with Soviet “active measures” espionage. The legendary secret agent businessmen, such as Armand Hammer or Robert Maxwell, were only the tip of the iceberg. Another example was the network of the “firms of friends,” secretly or openly controlled by the Western Communist Parties, which traded with Moscow on beneficial conditions, and was used by the Soviets to channel money for the purpose of subverting the free world. Meanwhile, about 300 large US businesses worked together with the Soviets in the secretive umbrella organization known as US-USSR Trade and Economic Council (TEC). Eminent Hoover Institution historian Anthony Sutton, who investigated the TEC in the 1980s, described it as “a formal joint Soviet-American apparatus to conduit advanced technology with pure military applications to the Soviet Union” and directly accuse its American members of “treason.” The TEC, whose membership list remained secret, was known to be backed by then Vice President George W. H. Bush and Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldridge.
The president of that organization was none other than James Giffen.
On the Soviet side, the TEC co-chairman was Vladimir Sushkov, the USSR’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade.
The 1972-1991 diary of the high-ranking Soviet official Anatoly Chernyaev, now available to researchers in several archives, reveals how he was briefed by Sushkov about the TEC activities in the 1970s.
Sushkov said the American members of the TEC included “the biggest monopolist giants, such as General Motors.” Some of them were willing to provide the Soviets with “badly needed products, including those of military significance,” Chernyaev wrotes on 21 January 1978.
The then legislation barred US banks from lending money to the USSR because of Soviet human rights abuses. However, the American members of the TEC allegedly told Sushkov:
We can give you any loans. You just name a dozen of products you would supply to us in exchange. Let them even be not good enough for the US or West European markets – no problem, we operate all over the world. We have simply coercive markets in the Third World, where we can sell whatever you want.
The diary continues:
Their cynicism: the multi-national corporations, members of the US-USSR Council, organize “positive results” of opinion polls in the US in favour of the development of Soviet-American economic links… They pay good money to all these Gallups for a poll to produce the required result.
Hawks and Jews
As the TEC President, Giffen was in the very heart of that murky world. A top secret report by another high-ranking Soviet official, Vadim Zagladin, now deposited in the Gorbachev Foundation Archive, records his meeting with Giffen in May 1985:
The meeting took place on 17 May on the initiative of Giffen, who shared his considerations in connection with the US Commerce Secretary Baldridge’s upcoming visit to the USSR.
1. Giffen described Baldridge as one of the most reasonable, though not highest-ranking, members of the Administration. Especially in recent times, he firmly advocates the development of relations with the Soviet Union and, in particular, the development of US-Soviet trade. […] You can consider Baldridge, Giffen said, as the friendliest man towards the USSR in the present US Administration.
2. […] The mood in the Administration increasingly favors some kind of “improvement” in the relations with the USSR. The people who take such a view include [State Secretary George] Schulz, [National Security Advisor Robert] McFarlane and Baldridge. There is, of course, the opposite wing ([Defense Secretary Caspar] Weinberger, [Assistant Defense Secretary Richard] Perle, and others), who advocate confrontation. However, although the latter wing dominated Washington’s policies until recently, now they are gradually losing ground to the soft-liners. Giffen is convinced that, in the nearest future, we will see great twists and U-turns in the administration’s policy due to the rivalry between different factions. […]
3. In these circumstances, Baldridge hopes to achieve some positive results in Moscow. Obviously, he cannot return from the Soviet Union with just unilateral results, i.e. having only made concessions to the Soviet Union. He has to get something in exchange, although, basically, he cannot and should not expect anything serious.
The document then goes into some detail as to what concessions the Soviets could expect from Baldridge, and how they could get away with offering some purely symbolic quid pro quo.
The document does not confirm the later claims that Giffen used his influence to urge the Soviets to improve their human rights record and allow the Russian Jews to emigrate. The then-US legislation linked US-Soviet trade with the freedom of emigration from the Soviet Union and, according to Zagladin’s report, Giffen warned him that Baldridge might raise the issue “unofficially” during the visit:
Giving his personal view, Giffen said that he, personally, is not concerned with this problem. Probably, some progress on emigration might help the removal of some obstacles to the trade with the US. However, Giffen stressed, even if we choose to do something in this field, we should not go too quickly. We should go by small steps and carefully observe the reaction of the opposite side. We must not let the “hawks” present an increase of emigration from theUSSR as resulting from their pressure – that would only lead to greater pressure in the future.
Apparently, Giffen was more interested in a different kind of Jew – the influential ones in America, rather than the oppressed ones in the USSR:
Significant changes are also underway in the US Jewish circles. Giffen believes this is very important, bearing in mind their influence in politics, business, and mass media.
The President of the World Jewish Congress, E[dgar] Bronfman, is becoming an active advocate of developing the relations with the USSR. On his own initiative, Bronfman was elected one of the directors of the US-USSR Trade and Economic Council, and is now preparing to visit the Soviet Union. Giffen passed the plan of Bronfman’s activities in the near future in this connection (enclosed).
So, indeed, Giffen’s career in East-West trade was closely interlinked with the Cold War, but it is far from certain that he was on the American side. In the documents, we only see him supplying the Soviets with highly sensitive information about the US leadership. Even if he was backed by a certain political faction within the US administration and liaised with Moscow on their behalf, his mission was very different from what his lawyers hinted at. As for those outside that hypothetical pro-Soviet caucus, Giffen would not have minded if his Soviet friends locked them up in the Gulag:
In conclusion, Giffen said that he can see the emerging good opportunities for improvements in various aspects of Soviet-American relations. Certainly, these opportunities must be exploited. He, on his part, will do everything in his power, and in particular, work more actively with the representatives of Jewish business, since so much depends on them.
The most difficult area will be disarmament, mainly because this is where the “hawks” have the strongest influence. In Giffen’s opinion, R[ichard] Perle has the leading position among them. He is a clever man, but evil and very dangerous. Even within the Administration, many people increasingly believe that he acts not so much in US interests as in the interests of Israel’s right-wing Likud party.
“Take Perle to the Soviet Union, keep him in some remote place, and everything in our relations will improve immediately,” Giffen joked in conclusion of the meeting.
Sharing Ventures and Secrets
In the next six years, Washington’s “doves” increasingly got the upper hand, relations improved, trade flourished, and even disarmament treaties were made. The Soviets, being Soviets, cheated on the disarmament treaties and kept killing pro-democracy protestors (e.g. in Lithuania in January 1991). At the same time, facing the immanent collapse of the regime, the Communists began a quiet privatization of their vast empire in order to secure their own future. Needless to say, the key roles in the newly emerging market were given to the old trusted comrades – from the East and from the West. The Party apparatchiks and KGB operatives were encouraged to set up “joint ventures” with Western businesses; predominantly the “firms of friends” and other old partners.
Giffen promptly organized a consortium to establish such joint ventures on behalf of seven US companies, including Chevron, Johnson & Johnson, Decatur, Archer Daniels Midland Co., and New Brunswick. In that capacity, Giffen befriended Narsulatan Nazarbayev, then the Soviet dictator of oil-rich Kazakhstan and now its “democratic” president. Brokering the huge drilling contract for Chevron at a lucrative Kazakh oilfield laid the foundations of Giffen’s career as “Mr. Kazakhstan” and the “oil consigliere.”
“On 14 February, I had a traditional meeting with Jim Giffen, the President of the American Consortium,” reads a 1991 top secret report by Zagladin deposited in the Gorbachev Foundation.
Once again, the seven-page document is filled with top-rate political gossip about the alignment of pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet forces in Washington:
President George W. H. Bush (whom Giffen saw before going to Moscow, as well as Scowcroft, Baker, Brady and Cheney) is clearly in favour of further development of good relations with the USSR […] Scowcroft is increasingly convinced of the importance of relations with the USSR […] Scowcroft is very upset by the ‘conventional weapons story’ […]but he “still hopes to clear the misunderstandings.”
Treasury Secretary Brady is the most consistent advocate of improving the relations with the USSR and developing the economic links. Giffen was present at the President’s meeting with Congress leaders. A number of participants claimed that the events in Lithuania and Latvia merited a “full review” of relations with the USSR, but then Brady vigorously opposed that idea. […]
In the end Bush, cautiously but firmly, supported Brady’s view.
The document also records Giffen’s advice on how to play on personal sympathies of US leaders. George W. H. Bush would be best influenced by personal contacts with Gorbachev. Brent Scowcroft trusted Gorbachev’s military advisor Marshal Akhromeev. Baker was very upset with the recent resignation of his friend, Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze. Brady disliked his Soviet opposite number, but otherwise could be a good channel for Soviet influence if invited to Moscow for talks.
President[ Gorbachev’]s meeting with Brady, his explanation of our problems, could strongly influence the US policies and the views of President Bush, who treats Brady “almost like a brother.”
At the end of the meeting, Giffen pointedly remarked that the information he gave to me, as well as his personal considerations, are strictly confidential. He begged me to ensure that they don’t become public.
In the same document, we find the following curious passage:
To demonstrate his closeness to the White House, Giffen informed me, in strict confidence, that he has just finished one of his regular trips to Iran. He goes there on instructions from Bush and Scowcroft, trying to improve US-Iranian relations. Although the progress is slow and painful, these efforts are close to success, Giffen said.
This may or may not be relevant, but some six years later, Giffen’s name was often mentioned in connection with a controversial “oil swap” between Kazakhstan and Iran, whereby Iran got around Western trade sanctions. Furthermore, the two countries unsuccessfully negotiated a plan to conduct such swaps on a regular basis, under a 10-years multibillion dollar contract. One international businessman involved in those talks then sued Giffen, three other businessmen, and Kazakhstan’s oil minister, for cheating him out of his lucrative commissions. The lawsuit, which threatened to reveal so many secrets of the international oil trade, was, of course, promptly settled out of court.
Alas, the recent decision of US prosecutors to make a plea bargain with Giffen seems to be influenced by similar considerations.
As the Soviet “joint ventures” mushroomed on the ruins of the empire in the early 1990s, the great Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky warned we witnessed the birth of a monstrous global crime syndicate. “Starting with the laundering of party funds and transferring the resources within their grasp (gold, oil, rare metals),” Bukovsky wrote, “these malevolent, Mafia-like structures grew like a cancer, absorbing practically all ‘private’ enterprise in the countries of the former USSR. Now, with the emergence of these countries into the world market, it behooves us to deal with yet another international mafia, a much more frightening and powerful one than any Colombian drug cartel or the Cosa Nostra. It is very likely that in some ten years time we shall be up against a criminal super-syndicate like the fabled specter in James Bond movies.”
Now, it seems, Bukovsky’s prophesy has come true. The kleptocracies in such countries as Russia and Kazakhstan are an indisputable fact of life. However, few would appreciate the global nature of the problem. We used to live in a world run by Communists and their fellow-travelers. Now they have sold out their bankrupt ideology and turned into ordinary crooks; but they still run the world. Like Communists, they are above the law; like communists, they are immune from prosecution. The specter is there – but there is no James Bond. The worst that can happen to them is a comfortable plea bargain.
**Pavel Stroilov is a historian who smuggled a vast secret archive of the Gorbachev era out of Russia.**