Briefing on Sept. 11th Terrorist Attacks

A Strange Intersection of Bushes, bin Ladens

By Tom Brazaitis, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
November 12, 2001

Movie producers would reject the script as too implausible even for Hollywood.

Here's the bizarre plot twist: The father of the president of the United States stands to profit from the war his son is waging against terrorists, and so does the family of the leading terrorist.

Until recently, the Texas-based Bush political dynasty that produced two presidents and the Saudi Arabian-based bin Laden family that spawned the FBI's most wanted terrorist reaped dividends from the same source.

Details of the case of strange business bedfellows have dribbled out over the last several months, raising at least the perception of conflicts of interest. But the Bush family and the White House maintain there is no impropriety.

Critics do not contend that President George W. Bush is waging war for his family's financial benefit. But they say the fact that the family stands to gain from any military action puts the family in a compromising position, even if the circumstances are purely coincidental. Former President Bush is a senior adviser to the Carlyle Group, a private equity company that buys failing defense and telecommunications enterprises and sells them for a profit. Carlyle's investors have collected returns averaging 34 percent over the last decade.

With assets of more than $12 billion, Carlyle is the 11th-largest defense contractor in the United States. It owns companies making tanks, aircraft wings and other military hardware.

Bush reportedly gets $80,000 to $100,000 for each of a half-dozen or more speeches he delivers for the Carlyle Group each year, and takes payment in Carlyle stock. How much the former president's stake is worth can't be determined because Carlyle's business dealings are private. An aide to the former president answered "no comment" to questions about his Carlyle compensation.

Until recently, the family of Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes against the United States, held at least $2 million in Carlyle stock. The family, which has publicly disavowed its black sheep, Osama, agreed to sell its Carlyle holdings last month to quash negative publicity. Details of this and the other relationships had been in reported publications including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Former President Bush has no such qualms about his relationship with Carlyle.

The former president's close ties with the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia and with leaders in Korea and other Asian nations reportedly helped Carlyle attract wealthy investors. But Jean Becker, the former president's chief of staff in Houston, said Bush does not lobby for Carlyle with either the American or foreign governments.

As for the appearance of a conflict, Becker said, "President Bush just feels strongly that this was a relationship that he had before his son became president, and because of the way in which he conducts himself in this relationship there is no conflict of interest. He feels very comfortable with it."

Becker confirmed that the former president had met twice with the bin Laden family on visits to Saudi Arabia in November 1998 and January 2000. Those visits, she said, were "irrelevant to the fact that he was there for Carlyle."

President George W. Bush himself has been a beneficiary of Carlyle's largesse. In 1990, before the younger Bush ran for governor of Texas, Carlyle put him on the board of directors of its subsidiary Caterair, an airline catering company.

The younger Bush also had a tenuous connection to the bin Laden family. In 1979, James Bath, a close friend, gave Bush $50,000 for a 5 percent stake in Arbusto Energy, Bush's first business. Bath was the U.S. business representative for Salem bin Laden, one of Osama's brothers, who headed the family's business enterprises. It has been speculated that Bath invested the bin Ladens' money, but the White House recently denied this, saying Bath invested his own money.

As governor, Bush appointed the board that managed the Texas teachers pension fund. Last November, the board voted to invest $100 million in Carlyle. The University of Texas has invested $15.6 million in funds managed by the Carlyle Group.

Tucker Eskew, a White House spokesman, said, "There is absolutely no conflict of interest in the view of the White House or any credible source that we're aware of."

Not everyone shares that view.

Judicial Watch, a self-described public-interest law firm that investigates and prosecutes government abuse and corruption, has called on the former president to cut his ties to the Carlyle Group. Judicial Watch's criticism of the Bushes is noteworthy because the group was one of the chief antagonists of the Clinton administration.

Tom Fitton, president of the watchdog group, said, "It's an obvious conflict of interest. It's a unique situation where you have the president's father, an ex-president, out there negotiating and dealing with foreign governments and advising foreign entities. It just leads to confusion. Does he speak for the Carlyle Group or for the government of the United States? Obviously, the Carlyle Group benefits from that confusion. Otherwise, they wouldn't have hired him."

Fitton said the bin Laden family's withdrawal from the Carlyle Group is a good thing, but doesn't absolve the former president.

Another Carlyle principal with ties to both Bushes is James A. Baker, the secretary of state in the first Bush administration, and the point man for George W. Bush during his legal fight with Al Gore last year over Florida's presidential votes. Baker holds the title of senior counselor for Carlyle.

Carlyle's president is Frank Carlucci, who was defense secretary in the Reagan administration. Carlucci was a college roommate of the current defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

Carlucci is open about his discussions with Rumsfeld on Pentagon politics, but he told the New York Times, "I've made it clear I don't lobby the defense industry. I will give our Carlyle bankers' advice on what they might do and who they should talk to. But I do not pick up the phone and say, 'You should fund X, Y or Z.' "

The Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group, has been investigating Carlyle's connections with former government officials. But information on Carlyle and its subsidiaries is hard to find because private companies are not compelled to reveal their inner workings, and Carlyle does not volunteer information, said Peter Eisner, the group's managing director.

"We don't know anything about former President Bush's financial arrangement with Carlyle, who his contacts are when he travels as a representative of Carlyle, and what information he provides back to his son or anybody in the U.S. government," Eisner said.

The revolving-door between government and business has been spinning merrily for many years. Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state and national security adviser for Presidents Nixon and Ford, started a consulting firm that has made him a multimillionaire since he left government service.

William Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine who was President Clinton's defense secretary, is a consultant to corporations. Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger; his former chief of staff, Mack McClarty; his ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke; and the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, William Kennard, also are cashing in on their years of government service. Kennard has signed on with Carlyle.

What makes the Bushes' situation unique, Eisner said, is the father-son connection, coupled with the ongoing war on terrorism.

"The revolving door makes it possible for current government officials, including the president of the United States, to profit from decisions that take place now, especially when his father, the former president, advises a company which has major defense contracts," said Eisner.

© 2001, The Cleveland Plain Dealer