THE magnitude and audacity of the BCCI banking scandal can be seen in the way it makes Clark Clifford look like a small fish. Mr. Clifford - the legendary Washington lawyer, power broker, and adviser to Democratic presidents from Truman to Carter - has for many years been a very big fish indeed, even in the huge pond that is America's capital. But even if the disturbing allegations against Clifford and his law partner, Robert Altman, prove true, the two men were just pilot fish swimming with the internat ional sharks who are behind the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.
Last week's federal and state indictments against Clifford and Mr. Altman have captured headlines in the United States. It is saddening to see the elderly Clifford, now in the twilight of a remarkable career, charged with serious crimes in connection with BCCI's acquisition of a US bank. And it will be disappointing if the evidence at the men's trial confirms the accusation that Clifford accepted millions of dollars to conceal the manipulations of and to be a player in an illicit global financial network .
The real story, however, is not about Clark Clifford. It's about a criminal enterprise of staggering proportions. BCCI purportedly financed terrorists and narcotics traffickers around the world, laundered drug and gun-running profits, bribed government officials in a dozen third-world nations, and helped debtor governments defraud the World Bank.
Similarly, the real question is not how could Clifford have been induced (or, as he claims, unwittingly duped) into abetting BCCI; but rather, from a policy standpoint, how could bank regulators and law-enforcement officials around the world fail to detect BCCI's predations for years?
Prosecutors may start to get some clearer answers both as to the scope of BCCI's criminal activities and to its success in concealing those activities from regulators.
A bigger fish than Clifford, Sheik Kamal Adham, has pleaded guilty to wrongdoing in connection with BCCI. As part of his plea bargain, he will cooperate in the case against Clifford and Altman and in the government's ongoing investigation. Sheik Kamal was a front man in BCCI's illegal purchase of First American Bank in Washington, the bank run by the two lawyers. A former head of Saudi Arabia's intelligence service, he may know much about BCCI's involvement with terrorism and espionage.
While the tragedy of Clark Clifford plays out, law enforcers - with the help of Sheik Kamal - need to keep casting bigger nets for the BCCI sharks who, though their bank has been closed, are still prowling in world finance.