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

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 Chroniclepiece 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 Timepieces (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," Timeobserved.

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.

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