Dickey: French Oil Trial Sheds Light on Cheney Milieu

The convictions handed down by a French court this week against arms dealers, influence peddlers, and former government officials, including a son of the late president François Mitterrand, expose a vivid picture of the world in which Dick Cheney used to do business when he was the head of Halliburton in the 1990s. The case did not touch on the former vice president's activities directly, and he is not implicated in any alleged wrongdoing. But now that a verdict has been reached in this nine-year-old French case, I expect the door will be open to investigations touching many corners of this fetid world of corruption. (Click here to follow Christopher Dickey)

The central character in the French case is Pierre Falcone, 55, who was convicted on arms trafficking and other counts for his role supplying some 170,000 land mines, 450 tanks, and other weapons to the Angolan government despite a United Nations-decreed embargo. And Falcone has some interesting American connections.

Before he was first thrown in jail in France in December 2000, he and his wife, Sonia, a former Miss Bolivia, were making quite a name for themselves in Paradise Valley, Ariz. This wealthiest of Phoenix suburbs has a lot of opulent homes, but the Falcones were building what was then the most expensive in the history of the state: a $10.5 million mansion. They were big donors to fashionable philanthropies, and Sonia liked to give money to the Republican Party. According to Federal Elections Commission records from the time, a little-known cosmetics company she owned contributed $100,000 to the Republican National Committee, and she forked over the maximum allowable $1,000 to both John McCain and George W. Bush. If Falcone hadn't been in Paris's La Santé Prison on Jan. 20, 2001, he might well have been gripping and grinning at the Bush inaugural balls in Washington that night.

This French merchant of arms and oil who "could sell sand to a Saharan," in the words of one lawyer, was selling himself to the American political establishment, and trying to parlay his supposed influence into lucrative contracts. According to French sources familiar with the case, notes seized in the office of Falcone's secretary at the height of the 2000 political campaign in the United States had him promising Angolan President José Eduardo Dos Santos a special introduction to the new U.S. president—whether George W. Bush or Al Gore.

Dos Santos, who has taken his southern African country from independence through civil war to vast and intimate relations with some of the world's most powerful oil companies, had come to expect such favors from his friends. In a surreal encounter with the newly appointed French ambassador a few months after Falcone's arrest, Dos Santos personally pleaded Falcone's case. "Thanks to his support, democracy and the rule of law still prevail in Angola," said Dos Santos. "Millions of people were saved from an imminent genocide." In 2003, as the case against Falcone continued its slog through the courts, Dos Santos gave the French businessman an Angolan diplomatic passport and made him an envoy to UNESCO in Paris. The court rejected Falcone's subsequent claim of diplomatic immunity.

In the already shady world of big oil, Angola truly is the heart of darkness, and the sleazy details of its dealings, while easy to conceal, are hard for anyone doing business with it to escape. Back in the 1990s, Dick Cheney was among those people. Cheney had moved from his position as secretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration to head up Halliburton, with its vast oilfield operations and its growing number of Pentagon contracts. In 1998 Cheney went to Angola himself to promote his company's interests. State Department documents publicized during the 2000 election campaign revealed that U.S. Embassy officials in the capital, Luanda, had "camped out" at local government offices to help the former cabinet member and his company secure a $68 million contract.

Maybe everything was on the up and up for that deal. But as multiple investigations by nongovernmental organizations have established, Dos Santos's government was so corrupt that even the "official" commissions paid by oil companies for concessions were never recorded in any official books, and it appears few people have done business in Luanda without adapting to its system of graft and payoffs. And Falcone became a kind of gatekeeper. By the late 1990s, according to one of the defendants in the French case, who spoke to me privately so as not prejudice his case, "the man you had to see was Pierre Falcone."

So who is this guy? Born in French Algiers to a Colombian mother and Neapolitan father, for most of his career Falcone moved in the overlapping worlds of French quasi-state enterprises, covert operations, global oil corporations, and Third World payoffs. After he was collared on Dec. 1, 2000, French investigators hoped his case would give them a key to expose the deeply ingrained system of political corruption that links France to several oil-rich African countries. Over the years, millions of dollars were channeled through friendly African dictatorships to what was then France's state-owned oil company, Elf Aquitaine, and ultimately back into the coffers of both the leading French political parties. (Elf subsequently was taken over by Total.) Those convicted this week for influence peddling in what's become known as "Angola-gate" include Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, who headed his father's secretive "Africa cell," and former French interior minister Charles Pasqua.

In the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union broke apart, Falcone signed up as one of his partners the former KGB man and Russian tycoon Arcadi Gaydamak, who was also convicted in absentia in Paris this week for arms trafficking and other crimes, and is the object of an international arrest warrant. Another important Falcone associate was Thierry Imbot, the son of a former head of the French intelligence service, who mysteriously fell to his death from his Paris apartment's fourth-floor window a few weeks before Falcone's arrest in 2000.

But the most important of all Falcone's friends was and remains the Angolan dictator Dos Santos. His country has two great sources of wealth: oil and diamonds. And two enormous sources of poverty: war and corruption. After the pretense of ideology dropped out of the equation at the end of the Cold War, Angola became the scene of ferocious competition among international oil corporations, some of which claimed to be representing their national interests. At the center of this rivalry, France's Elf and Total were pitted against Chevron and Exxon.

Falcone appears to have been France's not-so-secret point man backing Dos Santos. Remember that in 1992, the CIA was losing patience with Dos Santos's rival, Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA rebels, who were once ranked among the most prominent of the Reagan administration's "freedom fighters." Savimbi had not adapted to the end of the Cold War and was increasingly regarded, even by the Americans, as an obstacle to peaceful development of the Angolan oilfields. U.N.-sponsored elections were held with Washington's blessing and Savimbi lost. But Savimbi didn't stop fighting. Indeed, within a few months, Savimbi had Dos Santos's government under siege in Luanda.

It was at this juncture that Falcone and the Russian wheeler-dealer Gaydamak arranged to ship Dos Santos hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of weapons from Russia and the former Soviet bloc. After that, Dos Santos treated them as his special friends. In one spectacular deal that may qualify as the single largest money-laundering transaction in history, Gaydamak bought the entire Angolan national debt for a fraction of its worth, then sold it to Moscow for a profit of several hundred million dollars.

Jean-Charles Marchiani, formerly a high-ranking French intelligence operative, a hostage negotiator in Lebanon and Bosnia, and a close associate of key Gaullist leaders, told a television interviewer after Falcone's arrest that in Angola, Falcone "defended French interests, keeping the Americans from taking our place. He acted as a French patriot."

Of course. We can be sure that the Americans and everyone else trying to get a piece of that market had the same noble intentions—or at least that they'll say they did.