A crime reporter unravels tale of Nugan Hand Bank scandals

The Crimes of Patriots: A True Tale of Dope, Dirty Money, and the CIA, by Jonathan Kwitny. New York: W.W. Norton. 424 pp. $19.95. January 1980: The body of the 37-year-old Frank Nugan is found in his car - a presumed suicide - some distance from Sydney, Australia. Nugan and Michael Hand, a 39-year-old American (and highly decorated Green Beret in Vietnam), are the co-owners of the Nugan Hand Bank. It rose from nowhere in the mid-1970s to become an aggressive, well-publicized investing and money market enterprise, with its Sydney headquarters directing affiliates throughout Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

This empire quickly collapses with Nugan's death, as rumors spread of narcotics and arms dealing, currency laundering and smuggling, outright embezzlement - and close CIA involvement. Many small investors, attracted by promises of big returns, lose everything; the insiders, sales staff, and others do not. As several investigations begin in Australia, the international financial and political personages, and the retired American generals and admirals whose reputation and contacts had helped the bank enormously, all run for cover; Michael Hand disappears and still remains a fugitive from justice.

Jonathan Kwitny, a veteran investigative reporter with the Wall Street Journal, tells this story with dash, much detail - often scattered, not always relevant - and angry condemnation of the Central Intelligence Agency and anyone close to it. This is full-blooded muckraking, and certainly Kwitny relates some good horror stories.

A Nugan Hand branch in the Thai opium-producing country, for example, abutted the office of the American Drug Enforcement Administration - and even shared a receptionist with it. Important American companies in Saudi Arabia backed Nugan Hand's aggressive sales there to American workers; big investment money was raked in, sometimes being carried away in plastic garbage bags, much of it disappearing forever. In 1979, Nugan Hand hoped to gain United Nations money to settle Indochinese refugees in the Turks and Caicos Islands, seen as ideal Caribbean transshipment points on the narcotics routes from South America.

The official investigations after 1980 (which Kwitny uses heavily, but without offering page or even title citations) provide evidence, according to Kwitny, that the Nugan Hand hard core - none of whom have been prosecuted - were in effect pirates wielding briefcases rather than cutlasses and exploiting the incredible negligence and foolishness of both clients and businessmen.

Kwitny's real target, however, is not Nugan Hand but the CIA and an alleged military-intelligence-big business cabal that he sees as a virtual secret government, fueled by anticommunism, personal greed, and lust for power as it manipulates American policy in the third world. Kwitny first advanced this populist and conspiratorial interpretation in ``Endless Enemies'' (1986), an impassioned, black-and-white account of CIA operations. Having begun as a crime reporter writing about the Mafia and other conspiracies, Kwitny remains a crime reporter at heart. His concern is not with long-term forces, let alone ideas and attitudes, but with illegal business relations, associations, ``connections,'' as crucial to politics. Who said, ``Behind every great fortune stands a crime''? Kwitny doubtless would agree.

The Iran-contra affair certainly proves the importance of conspiracies. But are they decisive? What of Congress, the media, the bureaucracy, the voters, all the teeming complexity that Kwitny ignores? And what of ideas, attitudes, historical memories, and not least the messianic anticommunism that many grass-roots Americans embrace? Investigative journalism, with its lists of interviews and highly selective deployment of documents, may work in a criminal situation such as Watergate, but it lacks the intellectual hardware for more complex issues.

So Kwitny is good on Nugan Hand itself and provides convincing, though entirely circumstantial, evidence of its close association with the CIA: Covert operations require cash, which a bank can move and launder. And the agency's glamour attracts to it the political-military underworld, which, like the mercenary bands that infested Central Europe after the Thirty Years' War, has emerged from the wars and quasi-wars of recent decades. Naturally, Nugan Hand would receive favors and a certain toleration in return.

There are two ways of assessing Kwitny's book. One follows Oliver North, but from a leftist perspective: The end justifies the means, anything that shows up CIA dirty work should be applauded, and let's not be pedantic about flaws in the manuscript.

The other way says that pursuing truth requires self-discipline and a rigorous methodology in which sources are cited, evidence is assessed, and the focus remains sharp and tight: Use the rapier, not the bludgeon.

To be slipshod and superficial, no matter how worthy the goal, is to uphold politics over truth, and thus to corrupt both.

Leonard Bushkoff reviews books on history and politics for the Monitor.

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