As I write, Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia who was arrested in 2006, has just been given a prison sentence of 50 years for what the judge called “some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.” Adam Feinstein recounts in The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade how in 1998 Taylor began illegally trading diamonds for 68 tons of weapons to launch “Operation No Living Thing,” a “millennium...terror” that killed 250,000 people in Liberia and countless thousands more in Sierra Leone, where additional thousands were maimed for life.
Leonid Minin, an Israeli who supplied the weapons to Taylor, was arrested in a hotel room in Milan, “a den of debauchery,” with a million dollars in diamonds and hundreds of pages of documents showing his connection to defense companies, corrupt politicians, gun runners and banks, along with evidence that he had supplied West African countries, like Taylor’s Liberia.
Those involved in arms trafficking, like Minin, or the better known arms procurer, Victor Bout, who was also recently convicted, are often aided in clandestine arms sales by weapons manufacturers and governments. Bout’s arrest made the United States nervous about what he might reveal. Minin’s private jet was a gift from British Aircraft Corporation, but smaller than the one supplied by British Aerospace to Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar as an arms sales “consultant.” His record in arms procurement makes Minin look like a piker.
These men are agents of death, but they are often doing what makes governments and defense contractors happy, since sales are good for business. The United States has been the world’s leading exporter of killing machinery for many years. The United States has also regularly spent more on its own military behemoth than is spent by all other countries of the world combined.
Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to the United States as “the arsenal of democracy,” there has been an inverse ratio in the growth of “arsenal” relative to “democracy.” And, as if it had become an advocate for an International Rifle Association, our government has helped to flood the world with weapons. The genocidal killing in places like Rwanda—10 percent of its population was killed—are enabled by this scandalous arms dealing.
Andrew Feinstein shows in detail how the myriad schemes used in the procurement of weapons subvert the law. He is well equipped for this project, having already written about his first-hand knowledge of bribery and arms sales in South Africa, where he once served in Parliament.
British Aerospace, the gigantic defense contractor that was privatized under Margaret Thatcher, repeatedly shows up as the creator of complex webs of payments to “consultants,” who persuade politicians in countries ranging from South Africa and the Czech Republic to Hungary and Tanzania to buy weapons they do not need and cannot afford. The “fees” (bribes and kickbacks) pass through offshore companies to the consultants, who share them with politicians not otherwise inclined to buy weapons. “The arms industry and its powerful political friends have forged a parallel political universe that largely insulates itself against the influence of judgment of others by invoking national security.”
Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar made his country B.A.E.’s best customer. He used the Riggs Bank (the Central Intelligence Agency’s bank of choice) to stash millions supplied by B.A.E. in bribes paid to him and various members of the Saudi royalty for buying, in one deal, $43 billion for an entire menu of weapons, headed by outdated fighter jets. The British fraud office has been largely ineffectual. Feinstein says that “in the arms business, one can act with impunity.”
Arms transfers sometimes result in “blowback.” The late U.S. Con-gressman Charlie Wilson, regarded by many as a heroic patriot, funneled illegal weapons to Afghanistan’s Taliban to fight the Russians, but those weapons eventually ended up being turned on American troops. The 20,000 ground-to-air rockets missing after Libya’s Gaddafi was overthrown may also become “blowback.”
The events following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, opened new possibilities for corruption in the arms business, especially since there was “little oversight, competition, or transparency.” Claiming “national security” provides a way to avoid public scrutiny of military spending, resulting in an “almost total loss of accountability.” The Pentagon, unaudited for decades, has admitted that it cannot account for over $1 trillion. The Justice Department says it is so overwhelmed that illegal arms bribery cases involving only $1 million are too small to pursue.