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UK gov: Feds will get BAE bribe files when hell freezes over

Six month stonewall 'shows we know how serious this is'

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The UK government has refused to say when (or if) it might hand over its files on alleged corrupt payments by British-headquartered arms behemoth BAE Systems to Saudi royalty. The US Justice department formally requested the information six months ago.

The files in question are mainly those held by the UK's Serious Fraud Office (SFO), whose long-running probe into purported bribery by BAE - in order to win lucrative Saudi arms contracts - was shut down by the Blair government late in 2006.

Following the closure of the SFO investigation, information was leaked revealing that huge BAE-Saudi payments - handled by the infamous, soon-to-be-closed joint UK gov/biz arms sales bureau, DESO - had moved via a bank in Washington DC to reach the then Saudi ambassador to America, Prince Bandar.

This led the US Justice Department to initiate their own investigation into BAE under American corrupt-practices laws. BAE has made many acquisitions in America, and is now a large defence player there.

Naturally enough, the feds asked to see the SFO's voluminous files from the suppressed British probe under the provisions of the UK-US mutual legal assistance treaty. That was almost six months ago now, but so far the Home Office hasn't got round to releasing any information.

Yesterday in the House of Lords, various peers grilled Baron West of Spithead*, everyone's favourite comical Home Office minister, on the subject. He said that the government was absolutely not sticking its fingers in its ears, closing its eyes and shouting "la la la, I'm not listening to you" at the feds.

"I am somewhat confused," he expostulated.

"The Home Secretary has not refused this. She is in the process of giving this request the detailed consideration that it requires... It is not unusual for one to take this long."

Former high court judge Lord Thomas of Gresford was having none of it.

"How is it that this request has been hanging around for six months in the Home Office without being properly replied to? Why has the Home Office objected to the Americans taking evidence from a Mr Peter Gardner?" snapped the testy jurist.

The one-time admiral said it was jolly complex, actually.

"There are about 5,000 of these requests annually... Some of them are highly complicated and they very often take a very long time to deal with," he explained.

"This one is very complicated," he added.

The engagingly-batty fourth Baron of Avebury** weighed in next:

"My Lords," he said, "this is not a mundane day-to-day request such as the 5,000 that are received... It is a matter of vital importance... Does not the noble Lord consider that it is a matter of importance to give a prompt reply to the Department of Justice?"

West's reply had the ring of honesty.

"My Lords, we are in no doubt about how important this is... taking time, if anything, shows how important we believe it is."

He went on to add, again very believeably: "The fact that this has taken time does not mean that the Home Office has not given it priority."

Nor does it mean the Home Office is going to hand over the full SFO file much sooner than doomsday. ®

Bootnotes

*Lord West was until recently the Royal Navy's top admiral. His service career seriously took off after his courtmartial for allowing 50 pages of confidential documents to fall from his coat pocket while walking a friend's dog. This slip-up resulted in some very convenient press coverage for his then superiors, perhaps explaining West's subsequent speedy ascent. Since becoming a peer and counter-terror minister, West has added to his fame by a lightning change of mind over extended detention for terror suspects, following an interview without coffee at No. 10 Downing Street. His excuse was that he was just a "simple sailor" and people had misunderstood. He also notes, sadly, that these days "there is a firm of chauffeurs that refers to a U-turn as an Admiral West, which I find rather difficult".

West's Falklands War experience of being aboard a sinking ship may yet become relevant.

**Lord Avebury inherited his title in 1971 after his cousin died. He was previously an MP. In his own words: "In 1962 the wise, far-seeing people of Orpington elected me as their Member; in 1970 the fools threw me out". The Baron is a practicing Buddhist.

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